How Does Stress Impact the Digestive System?
First and foremost, it is essential to understand that the brain and your digestive system (gut) are in constant communication. There are more nerves in your gut than in the entire spinal cord.[i] When your body is stressed, it releases the hormone cortisol (often referred to as the stress hormone) and the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine.[ii] When released during short periods of stress, these compounds will have a healthy impact on the body. The problem arises when the body is under continued stress, and these hormones have flooded the body for extended periods. The combination of this constant elevation contributes to the breakdown of your digestive system and leads to increases in your digestive woes.[iii] Many studies prove that stress is associated with the onset of symptoms or the worsening of symptoms in many digestive conditions, such as inflammatory bowel problems, reflux, and even ulcerations.[iv]
The significant effects of stress on the gut physiologically speaking are[v]:
- alterations in gastrointestinal movement (either too fast or too slow)
- increase the ways people feel their digestive sensations, i.e., discomfort
- Changes in gastrointestinal secretions such as saliva, mucus, stomach acid, enzymes, and bile. These play an essential role in digestion and protection.
- An increase in weakness (or gaps/holes) in the lining of your digestive tract which leads to bacteria and other toxins passing through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream.
- The more permeable the digestive lining is, the more likely the chance for adverse effects and breakdown of the protective lining.
- Adverse effects on the ability of the body to heal, repair and create a healthy digestive lining
- Negative impact on the microbiome, i.e., beneficial bacteria found in the small and large intestines.
Below, you can see how and what stress may be contributing to your digestive problems.
As mentioned, stress can also make pain, bloating, or discomfort felt more easily in the bowels. In addition, it can affect how quickly food moves through the body, which can cause either diarrhea or constipation. Due to stress’ impact on bowel health, it also affects the digestion and absorption of nutrients into the body. [vi]
The intestines have a tight barrier to protect the body from (most) food-related bacteria. However, stress can make the intestinal barrier weaker and allow gut bacteria to enter the body. In addition, the constant low need for inflammatory action can also lead to mild chronic symptoms.[vii]
According to an article published by the American Psychological Association, “stress can affect this brain-gut communication and may trigger pain, bloating, and other gut discomforts to be felt more easily. The gut is also inhabited by millions of bacteria which can influence its health and the brain’s health, impacting the ability to think and affect emotions. Stress is associated with gut bacteria changes, which can influence mood. Thus, the gut’s nerves and bacteria strongly influence the brain and vice versa.”
Stress can result in heartburn or acid reflux. Stress or exhaustion can also increase the severity of regularly occurring heartburn pain. Up to 64% of patients with stress and gastroesophageal reflux reported aggravation of their symptoms by stress, and stress reduction often resulted in an improvement.[viii] [ix] In another condition, dyspepsia (pain or uncomfortable feeling in the upper middle part of the stomach), researchers found that psychological stress, particularly recent life events, was a major risk factor for this condition.[x] Stress is also linked to an increased risk of developing an erosion of the digestive lining.[xi][xii] Stress also may make swallowing difficult or increase the amount of air swallowed, which increases burping, gassiness, and bloating.[xiii]
Addressing the Stress
There are numerous botanical extracts available that address stress from different angles. Here are a few of my personal favorites:
- Ashwagandha (KSM-66®/Sensoril®): Research with ashwagandha shows it not only decreased daily stress but had a significant impact on decreasing cortisol, also known as the stress hormone.[xiv]
- Caralluma (CALMalumaTM): Two studies show that CALMalumaTM reduces stress and frustration. It also increases relaxation and supports the balancing of cortisol (the stress hormone).
- Saffron (Affron®): Affron® has been well studied for stress and has proven benefits for alleviating occasional stress, frustration, and tension in adults,[xv] helped children (12-16 years of age) maintain a positive mood and alleviate occasional stress, frustration, and tension,[xvi] and improve psychological symptoms (low mood and occasional stress) in perimenopausal women[xvii]
Supporting the Gut
- ImmunoLin®: While ImmunoLin® is not an ingredient designed to address stress, it does play an important role in gut health and most of the symptoms and issues caused by chronic stress. Until a person can learn how to manage or seek medical attention for their stress, ImmunoLin® can offer support for their digestive concerns from their stress. ImmunoLin® supports the body’s natural immune defenses in the gut and has been thoroughly studied. ImmunoLin® provides high levels of IgG antibodies which are known to protect you against infection by “remembering” which germs you were previously exposed to.
- Probiotics: Probiotics are “friendly” bacteria that are found in your digestive system. Probiotics serve two purposes: They finish the digestive process and help protect against pathogens (disease-causing bacteria, fungus, yeast, etc.) found in or on your food. Without enough of these beneficial bacteria, you won’t be able to fully digest your food particles into “micro” particles or convert some of those nutrients into the absorbable or usable forms the body needs. Probiotics are essential for absorbing nutrients, synthesizing key vitamins, improving the absorption of minerals, and helping the digestion of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and fiber. Throw in the benefits to your immune system, and we have a winner.
[i] Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. The Enteric Nervous System. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11097/
[ii] Ranabir S, Reetu K. Stress and hormones. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2011;15(1):18-22. doi:10.4103/2230-8210.77573
[iii] Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011 Dec;62(6):591-9. PMID: 22314561.
[iv] GI Society Canadian Society of intestinal Research website, https://badgut.org/information-centre/a-z-digestive-topics/stress-and-your-gut/ , Stress and Your Gut, accessed November 9 2021
[v] Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011 Dec;62(6):591-9. PMID: 22314561.
[vi] Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011 Dec;62(6):591-9. PMID: 22314561.
[vii] GI Society Canadian Society of intestinal Research website, https://badgut.org/information-centre/a-z-digestive-topics/stress-and-your-gut/ , Stress and Your Gut, accessed November 9 2021
[viii] Fass R, Fennerty MB, Vakil N. Non erosive reflux disease—current concepts and dilemmas. Am. J. Gastroenterol. 2001; 96: 303–14.
[ix] Bradley LA, Richter JE, Pulliam TJet al. The relationship between stress and symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux: The influence of psychological factors. Am. J. Gastroenterol. 1993; 88: 11–19.
[x] Stanghellini V. Relationship between upper gastrointestinal symptoms and lifestyle, psychosocial factors and comorbidity in the general population: results from the Domestic/International Gastroenterology Surveillance Study (DIGEST). Scand. J. Gastroenterol.1999; 231: 29–37.
[xi] Dunn JP, Cobb S. Frequency of peptic ulcer among executives, craftsmen and foreman. J. Occup. Med. 1962; 4: 343–8.
[xii] Cobb S, Rose RM. Hypertension, peptic ulcer and diabetes in air-traffic controllers. J. Am. Med. Assoc 1973; 224: 489–92.
[xiii] Carlson D, Gyawali C, Roman S, et. al., Esophageal Hypervigilance and Visceral Anxiety Are Contributors to Symptom Severity Among Patients Evaluated With High-Resolution Esophageal Manometry, The American Journal of Gastroenterology: March 2020 – Volume 115 – Issue 3 – p 367-37, doi: 10.14309/ajg.0000000000000536
[xiv] Remenapp A, Coyle K, Orange T, et al. Efficacy of Withania somnifera supplementation on adult’s cognition and mood. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2021 Nov 25;13(2):100510
[xv] Kell G, Rao A, Beccaria G, Clayton P, Inarejos-García AM, Prodanov M. affron® a novel saffron extract (Crocus sativus L.) improves mood in healthy adults over four weeks in a double-blind, parallel, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Complement Ther Med. 2017 Aug;33:58-64. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2017.06.001. Epub 2017 Jun 13. PMID: 28735826.
[xvi] Lopresti AL, Drummond PD, Inarejos-García AM, Prodanov M. affron®, a standardized extract from saffron (Crocus sativus L.) for the treatment of youth anxiety and depressive symptoms: A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. J Affect Disord. 2018 May;232:349-357. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2018.02.070. Epub 2018 Feb 26. PMID: 29510352.
[xvii] Lopresti AL, Smith SJ. The Effects of a Saffron Extract (affron®) on Menopausal Symptoms in Women during Perimenopause: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study. J Menopausal Med. 2021;27:e8. https://doi.org/10.6118/jmm.21002