How does Stress Affect the Digestive System?

How does Stress Affect the Digestive System?
When we’re nervous (about an upcoming exam, interview, presentation, or first date), we have all felt “butterflies in our stomach”. When we receive disappointing news, we feel a sinking sensation in our stomach. These show that our digestive system is directly linked to our brains. Thus, when we’re stressed, the digestive system is impacted too.

Our gut – the second brain

The gut is controlled by the central nervous system and the spinal cord. However, it also has its own neuron network in the gastrointestinal lining, termed the “enteric” or “intrinsic” nervous system. This network of neurons has so much influence on our body that many experts call the gut our second brain.

What happens to our bodies when we’re stressed?

In order to understand how stress impacts our digestive system, it is crucial to know about the stress response our body shows. We have two responses – the stress response and the relaxation response (if you’re interested in the scientific terms, the stress response is when the sympathetic nervous system is activated, while the parasympathetic nervous system activates the relaxation response). When faced with a perceived threat or stressor, our body goes into something called ‘fight-or-flight’, meaning that it gets alert and ready to deal with the threat. The stress response is activated – resulting in a high heart rate, sweating, fast breathing, muscle tension, and the release of a hormone called cortisol. After the threat has passed, ideally, the body goes into the relaxation response, and continues functioning normally.

Difficulty in dealing with your stress? Speak to our mental wellness professional to identify your stressors and deal with them.

Stress and digestion

How, then, is this stress response related to digestion? When the body responds to stress, it prepares itself to deal with the threat by conserving energy from functions not needed for immediate survival – including digestion. The stress response stops the digestion process, while the relaxation response (also called ‘rest and digest’) activates it. In other words, the digestive functions are suppressed to reroute the resources to deal with the stressor. There can also be a reduction in the supply of oxygen and blood to the stomach. Since the emptying of the stomach is delayed, it can lead to stomach issues.

How short-term stress impacts the digestive system

  • The esophagus can go into spasms – leading to stomachaches.
  • The acid in your stomach may increase, causing issues like indigestion and heartburn.
  • Due to the irregularity of digestion, you may feel nauseous.
  • While the stress response slows digestion, it leads to more motor function in the large intestine. This means that diarrhoea can also be an effect of stress.
  • It may increase the air that is swallowed, leading to gassiness, bloating or burping.
  • Stress may also increase or decrease your appetite significantly.

How long-term or chronic stress affects the digestive system

If the stress response happens once in a while, the body recovers and returns to normal functioning. However, if the response is triggered too frequently, it is more challenging for the body to recover. There can be an imbalance in gut bacteria and even inflammation. It can also become a vicious cycle – where the frequent digestive issues may, in turn, increase your stress levels. Excessive stress can lead to, or exacerbate, gastrointestinal problems including:

  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
  • Ulcers
  • Abdominal Pain

How to manage stress

The following stress reduction techniques may help you manage your stress levels, and consequently improve your digestive process. However, it should be noted that not every method works for everyone, and you may have to go through some trial-and-error to figure out what works for you.

  • Consider therapy. Therapy has proven to help with stress and anxiety levels considerably.
  • Get in some exercise. Exercise is a two-pronged approach; it not only reduces stress levels, but can also impact your digestion directly.
  • Try yoga and meditation. Evidence suggests that both meditation and yoga can considerably reduce stress levels.
  • Take time out for yourself. If you don’t take breaks, your nervous system will be overcharged, increasing – you guessed it – the stress you have.
  • Try deep breathing. The stress response causes shallow, fast breathing – meaning your body does not get enough oxygen. Learn to breathe deeply and from your abdomen.
  • Reduce, or better yet, stop smoking. While its adverse effects on the respiratory system are well known, its impact on the digestive system is also pretty significant.


In addition to these techniques to manage stress, you can also protect and improve your digestive health by reducing alcohol and sugar intake – since both contribute drastically to the balance of bacteria in your stomach. Eat regular meals, and avoid skipping any. Drink an adequate amount of water. Increasing foods that have probiotics (the most commonly available being yogurt and bananas) can also help. You may also want to see a medical professional to rule out any other causes of gastrointestinal issues.

Stress can take a toll on your physical and mental fitness. Speak to our mental wellness expert at and address it.


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