The gut-brain connection is no joke, as it can link anxiety to stomach problems and vice versa. Have you ever had a heartbreaking experience? Do certain situations make you feel sick? Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach? We use these expressions for a reason, as the gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotions, including anger, fear, sadness, and elation. All of these feelings and others can cause symptoms in the gut.
The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines. For example, the mere thought of eating can release the gastric juices before the food arrives. This connection goes both ways. A restless gut can send signals to the brain, just as a restless brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s gastrointestinal distress can be the cause or product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and gastrointestinal (GI) system are closely linked.
This is especially true in cases where a person is experiencing gastrointestinal distress with no apparent physical cause. For such functional gastrointestinal disorders, it is difficult to attempt to cure a distressed gut without considering the role of stress and emotion.
According to Natalie Murray, health coach and director of the Life Store Wellness Boutique, fight or flight syndrome is triggered when you experience stress. You prepare to either fight the stressor or run from it.
In medical terms, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis sets in motion a cascade of biochemicals and hormones that culminate in the stimulation of your adrenal glands and the release of cortisol. This begins your body’s fight against the effects of stress, and this stress hormone not only affects stress, but it also affects other parts of your body, especially the digestive system.
During stressful experiences, especially chronic stress according to Murray, the level of cortisol in your bloodstream rises sharply. As a result, negative effects occur on many of the body’s systems, especially the digestive system.
“Normally, cortisol plays a major role in your body’s nutritional needs. This constitutes a factor involved in the relationship between cortisol and the digestive system. To meet the physical demands of a normal day, cortisol helps regulate energy by choosing the right combination of fats, carbohydrates and proteins. A chronic elevation of cortisol, as seen with chronic stress, has negative effects on the immune system, weight and risk of chronic disease,” Murray said.
Another aspect of the relationship between cortisol and the digestive system involves biochemical and hormonal imbalances that develop when cortisol shifts your body’s functioning from everyday life to survival. This shift sets aside those processes that do not contribute to immediate survival. Therefore, digestion slows down or stops until the stress is gone.
“In the fast-paced, stressful lifestyle that many people lead, your adrenal glands continue to release large amounts of cortisol. As a result, your entire body experiences an imbalance of hormones and your immune system suffers,” Murray said.
“During the stress response, cortisol helps redirect blood flow from the digestive tract to the brain and large muscles. Therefore, digestion is suppressed when you experience stress. So the constant experience of stress with the associated high levels of cortisol puts a huge strain on your body due to issues with the digestive process,” she added.
Given how closely the gut and brain interact, it becomes easier to understand why you might feel nauseated before giving a presentation, or feel gut pain during times of stress. However, that doesn’t mean functional gastrointestinal disease is imagined or all in your head.
Based on these observations, one would expect that at least some patients with functional gastrointestinal disorders would improve with therapy to reduce stress or treat anxiety or depression. Multiple studies have shown that psychologically based approaches lead to greater improvement in digestive symptoms compared to conventional medical treatments alone.
Are your stomach or intestinal problems, such as heartburn, abdominal cramps or loose stools, related to stress? Be aware of these and other common symptoms of stress and discuss them with your doctor. Together, you can come up with strategies to help you deal with the stressors in your life, as well as ease your digestive discomfort.