Is Stress Affecting Your Gut? A Mental Health Expert Explains

Plus stress-busting hacks.

By: Nicole Lippman-Barile Ph.D., N.T.P.

Stress — the fight or flight response that affects multiple systems in our body — can be defined as any kind of physical, mental, or emotional strain or challenge. It typically refers to two things: the psychological perception of pressure, and the body’s response to it. While most of us would rather avoid those heart-pounding, anxious-stomach, stressful situations, not all stress is inherently harmful. In fact, acute stress can be helpful, and even motivating. Remember being in school and stressing about your exam? Well, that mild form of stress may have helped you prepare for the exam.

Stress is our mind and body signaling that something is important, and we need to pay attention to it (don’t worry, stress — we hear you loud and clear!) 

Whether unexpected or anticipated, the perception of stress triggers an initial and cascade of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that immediately start surging in your body. These hormones are responsible for us feeling nervous, anxious, and physical sensations like increased heart rate and labored breathing. 

We’ve all experienced those “butterflies” in the pit of our stomachs during a high-stress situation  — the brain and gut are in constant communication, so it’s no surprise stress and the digestive system are closely related. But, how does stress affect the digestive system? Let’s find out, plus the best ways to manage stress when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

How Stress Affects Your Gut

When you are feeling stressed, your body is getting ready to prepare for action, to either fight, flee, or freeze. Being in this state shuts down our ability to rest and digest, which occurs in a parasympathetic state, or when we feel relaxed and at ease. Almost immediately, upon feeling stressed, our saliva production slows down, and blood is diverted to other body parts that are useful to ensure our survival, like our large muscles to help us fight or flee. 

Stress & Digestion

So, how does stress affect digestion? Well, digestion is not seen as essential when we are feeling stressed. In fact, the secretion of all digestive juices and enzymes decrease when we are stressed. This leads to lower levels of hydrochloric acid, which means that we will not be able to digest the food we want to eat as effectively. This means that our digestion is already compromised even before we take our first bite of food.

Stress & Nutrient Absorption

Another part of your digestion that gets compromised when stressed is peristalsis, known as the constriction and relaxation of the intestine muscles. Peristalsis is what helps move the food through the intestines and is essential for food absorption and waste elimination. When compromised, your body’s ability to absorb the nutrients in the food you are eating is diminished as well as your body’s ability to eliminate. This can mean loose stools, constipation, gas, and even contribute to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). 

Stress & Our Gut Bacteria 

Stress also has a direct influence on our gut microbiota — the living organisms that help influence almost all aspects of our health, including our immune function. Stress significantly impacts the composition of our gut microbes by increasing inflammation and influencing the kind of bacteria that populate. With chronic stress, dysbiosis can occur, which is an imbalance of the kind of gut bacteria that reside in our guts. This is important because of the influence these gut microbes have on our overall health, including mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Stress can also increase the permeability of our gut lining which can result in leaky gut, causing further inflammation throughout our body and brain. If that’s not enough, stress can cause decreased levels of an important antibody called secretory IgA, which helps to protect our intestinal lining, further contributing to leaky gut and increased inflammation. 

Stress & Food Cravings

Additionally, mild stress can influence food choices and even encourage unhealthy eating. *Studies show that the experience of stress increases our desire to consume comfort foods and higher-calorie foods. And relatedly, any stress on the body has the potential to influence our choices and behaviors in a negative way. 

Research on sleep deprivation, which can be an acute or chronic stressor on the body, increases our desire for high-calorie foods and impairs our ability to make a more rational choice when subjected to both high and low-calorie foods. It also increases the tendency to overeat, especially in women. Prioritizing and maintaining quality sleep is essential in helping decrease your experience of stress and helps stave off these potential negative diet consequences. 

RELATED: 20 Life-Changing Sleep Hacks For When You’re Tired of Being Tired

What Can You Do To Manage Stress?

While we know that stress can negatively affect digestion, the good news is that there are stress-relieving practices that can help us bust stress and in turn help support digestion!

Deep Belly Breathing

Stress is inevitable, and because of this, you want to concentrate your efforts on management. Deep belly breathing, known as diaphragmatic breathing, can be incredibly effective when we are feeling stressed. This can also be useful before you sit down and eat a meal as diaphragmatic breathing triggers a relaxation response, helping your digestive enzymes become stimulated to further ensure that your food is being properly digested and absorbed. 

Exercise & Meditation 

A regular exercise routine can also be beneficial, as can a meditation practice. The mental-emotional benefits of exercise and meditation may help reduce psychological stress, leading to a happier belly. 

Need more stress-busting tips? Check out this article on The Top 3 Hacks For Anxiety for more tips on how to manage feelings of stress, including writing down your worries and eating a nutrient-dense diet to support both physical and mental health. 

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