The Power of the Brain-Gut Connection: 5 Ways to Combat Stress’ Impact on Digestion

The Power of the Brain-Gut Connection: 5 Ways to Combat Stress’ Impact on Digestion
Jennifer Weinberg

If you have ever “choked under pressure” or felt your “stomach in knots” when faced with a difficult decision, you are familiar with the powerful ways in which stress can influence digestion. Emotions create physiological changes in your body, and stress is no exception. In broad terms, stress refers to any real or perceived threat or demand. Such stressors elicit adaptive responses within the body as you attempt to maintain homeostasis and ensure survival.

Stress can be acute, in response to a large threat like a fire, or chronic and insidious, usually from aspects of your daily life. Lifestyle factors can also increase your level of stress. These include:

  • Imbalanced diet
  • Physical overtraining
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Having a job you don’t enjoy
  • Negative thinking

The Brain-Gut Axis: How Emotions Impact Digestion

The digestive system is particularly vulnerable to the presence of stress, especially when it becomes chronic. This is because the nervous system and digestive system are closely intertwined in what is sometimes called the brain-gut axis.

The walls of your digestive tract are infiltrated by a network of nerve fibers called the myenteric plexus, which contributes to the enteric nervous system. This enteric nervous system is part of your autonomic nervous system, which receives signals from your brain and is sometimes thought of as a second brain within your gut. You have likely experienced this brain-gut connection before when you sense a “gut feeling,” “butterflies in your stomach,” or anxiety-induced nausea.

The biochemical and hormonal changes that occur in response to emotional stress have immediate and often persistent impacts on digestive health. The physiologic stress response is geared toward survival, so it focuses energy on dealing with the threat at hand, sacrificing processes like digestion and repair. Depending on the severity of the threat, this may cause your digestion to slow down or stop completely.

Stress induces changes in:

  • Gastric secretion
  • The movement of food through the digestive tract
  • Intestinal permeability
  • Blood flow
  • Inflammation

For example, it has been long known that severe stressors like surgery or trauma can cause the intestinal lining to become “leaky.” More recent research is also exploring the impacts of chronic psychological stress on this important gut barrier. Overall, these impairments in normal digestion can lead to:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Pain
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Imbalanced metabolism

Emerging science also demonstrates that the microbes, which inhabit your digestive tract and play many important roles in your health, seem to respond directly to stress-related signals. This stress-induced disruption of the microbiome can increase susceptibility to infections, influence weight, and impact metabolism.

Over time, chronic exposure to stress may contribute to the development or worsening of a variety of more complex digestive diseases, including:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Peptic ulcer disease
  • Food allergies

Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to help manage the stress of daily life and improve your digestive health. Stress reduction strategies are key to healthy digestion as …read more
Source: Deepak Chopra  

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