How are stress and gut health related?

8:00 p.m. April 4, 2022

Not surprisingly, stress is linked to a number of health and medical issues.

Although it’s most commonly associated with issues like heart disease, high blood pressure, and depression, did you know that stress can also harm your gut health?

“The effect of stress on our digestive system is due to something called the gut-brain axis,” says Emma Jamieson, nutrition therapist and health coach.

Registered Nutritionist and Health Coach Emma Jamieson
– Credit: Rebecca Lewis, Poshyarns Photography

“It’s a two-way street between our gut and our brain, with the central nervous system connecting the two. The nerves in the gut lining (the enteric nervous system) are known to communicate directly with the brain, and vice poured.

“What this means is that when stress and tension are perceived in the brain, they are immediately communicated to the gut, where similar feelings can be experienced as a result.”

Impaired gut motility is a known symptom of both short-term and prolonged stress, and is the speed at which food and/or stool moves through the digestive tract. This can be increased or decreased by stress.

“Do you feel like you go to the bathroom more often when you’re under pressure? Or maybe you’ve noticed that in times of chronic stress, you just can’t “go for it.” Paradoxically, both diarrhea and constipation are linked to increased stress,” says Emma.

“If you imagine that the nerves of the enteric nervous system are excited by stress, it is not surprising that conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are exacerbated when stress levels rise. In fact, stress can be a trigger for IBS in the first place, with symptoms like pain, bloating, flatulence, and the aforementioned diarrhea and/or constipation.

Digestive conditions such as IBS are exacerbated when a person is stressed

Digestive conditions such as IBS are exacerbated when a person is stressed
– Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“It often happens that until the underlying causes of stress are addressed, IBS cannot be fully resolved. In some extreme cases, this may involve changing jobs, reassessing home life, and making changes to other causes of ongoing stress before digestive symptoms begin to improve.

On the flip side though, an unhappy gut can add to the stress load of the body itself. “Just as the brain influences digestion, any disruption of the status quo in the gut can be detected by the brain.”

A number of causes can lead to this – some of them include:

  • Inflammation of the intestinal lining, which may result from a condition such as inflammatory bowel disease or an overgrowth of disease-causing bacteria.
  • Persistent intestinal permeability issues, known as “leaky” gut – ironically, possibly triggered by stress in the first place, where spaces between cells in the intestinal lining allow food particles, toxins and bacteria to pass into the bloodstream.
  • Dysbiosis – where levels of beneficial bacteria outnumber pathogenic strains causing an unhealthy gut environment.
  • Unwanted visitors such as parasites, yeasts and/or pathogenic bacteria. Signs of these include upset stomach after traveling abroad, a history of taking multiple antibiotics, or worsening after eating foods containing yeast such as bread, beer, and vinegar. Recurrent thrush is also a sign of yeast overgrowth.
  • Underlying food sensitivities that add to the stress load of the body.

“When the anxiety of everyday life is already taxing the body, working on addressing these issues can go a long way towards improving digestive function and associated symptoms,” adds Emma.

There are a number of things you can do to improve your gut health, such as eating more fruits and vegetables each week.

Filling your plate with fruits and vegetables is a great way to boost your gut health

Filling your plate with fruits and vegetables is a great way to boost your gut health
– Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Aim to cover half your plate, if you can. Taking a probiotic supplement or introducing fermented foods to your diet will also help, as will making time to eat without distractions. Chewing each bite carefully can make a huge difference in the whole digestive process.

And stress reduction itself is essential to help repair your gut.

“As you know, that’s often easier said than done. But self-care plays a huge role in this, so try to make time to focus on your mental well-being on a weekly and daily basis.

“Try to focus on calming and slowing your breathing, both before meals and at times of the day when stress levels start to rise. Getting out into nature daily, regardless of the weather, is another great way to relieve stress, or how about some gentle exercise every day like walking, swimming or dancing around the kitchen to your favorite song?

“And if you think gut issues may be a contributing factor to your overall stress, then working with a nutritionist to identify possible causes and support your digestive health might be a good place to start.”

To find out more about Emma and the work she does, visit

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