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Stress and Your Digestion – Are They Connected?

Stress Woman, Breathing Digestion

Mature woman standing next to lake breathing

Take a moment to really think about how the word ‘stress’ makes you feel. For some of you, it may have become the norm so you just don’t notice it anymore. Or maybe thinking about it makes you feel more stressed? Some of you, may even have a gut reaction to the word, a clench, butterflies…

Now think about if just the word can make you feel something, what impact it could have on your body when it is actually under stress.

We talked to naturopath Kelly about the impact stress has on our gut health, and how supporting a healthy response could have wider benefits.

Kelly, what happens in our bodies when we’re under stress?

In short, a lot!

Stress can be something we experience when we feel overwhelmed. But it isn’t just a feeling.  It is the process our body goes through when it senses danger.  And it activates a number of biochemical processes that help our body respond to that threat.

Humans evolved for short-term stress

In the past, a charging lion would have triggered an immediate stress response – to run or fight.  This instantaneous evolutionary response helped to keep us alive. It doesn’t require any conscious thought or understanding to work.

This kind of acute stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – also known as our ‘fight or flight’ response.  This is one side of the autonomic nervous system – the part of the brain responsible for regulating bodily processes without our conscious thought.  These include functions like heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, pupil dilation, body temperature, sweating and digestion.

In evolutionary terms, to face or run from a threat, we would need an increase in heart rate and breathing to draw in more oxygen and push that oxygenated blood to our arm and leg muscles in preparation for activity. Our pupils would dilate to take in more light and information needed to make split-second decisions.  We would sweat more as our body heats up with the increase in blood flow to our periphery.

The opposite side of the SNS is the PNS or parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the ‘rest and digest’ response.  Think of it like the accelerator and brake pedal in a car – one makes us go, and the other slows us down.  The parasympathetic nervous system calms the body down after the threat has passed.

Modern life = chronic, long-term stress

But in today’s world, it’s not so simple.  We no longer have to face charging lions in our day-to-day lives. But we do have to face traffic jams when we’re running late.  Or paying our bills when we’re short on funds.  We have to face urgent deadlines with just not enough time.  As well as all the ‘big deals’ in life like changes in personal circumstances or changes in relationships, loss or trauma.

These kinds of stressors are a normal part of life and happen all the time.  But regardless of whether they are big or little in the scheme of things, stressful events all have an impact on the body.

Whereas in the past, stress was intense and immediate, it usually was not sustained.  Now we experience it all the time, and it is this chronic, ongoing stress response that causes so much damage to the body.

So does that affect our digestion? How?

Yes! When we are getting ready to run or defend ourselves from a threat, the last thing our body is prioritising is the digestion of our last meal!

In fact, the gut is particularly vulnerable to stress. Every major function of digestion is compromised.

Stress can:

  • Alter the appetite or cause feelings of nausea
  • Decrease the secretion of digestive juices and protective mucous leading to impaired digestion and increase gastric irritation
  • Impact the secretion of stomach acid leading to reflux
  • Change how fast or slow food passes along our digestive tracts leading to either digestive sluggishness or looseness.
  • Increase the permeability of our intestinal lining and lead to a leaky gut.
  • Increase gut sensitivity leading to greater feelings of discomfort and muscular spasm
  • Alter the balance of our beneficial microbes, reducing the diversity of gut flora, and lead to the overgrowth of pathogenic species.

Chronic stress can also lead to the development of a variety of gastrointestinal health conditions. These could include irritable bowel syndrome, gastroesophageal reflux, ulcers, food allergies or inflammatory conditions.  It can also worsen pre-existing conditions.

What about different types of stress? Will short-term or long-term stress have a different effect?

Stress is like inflammation – a little is good, a lot is not.

When it occurs over the short-term (acutely), it can give us a motivating push, make us alert, and keep us focused. But then the stress response needs to be turned off. Problems occur when it’s constant.

The brain and gut are in constant communication with each other. Acute or short-term stress can lead to digestive symptoms and upsets like bloating, discomfort or irritation. But these are usually mild and short-lived.

For instance, public speaking is a common cause of stress for most people. When under stress, a person can experience a dry mouth because their salivary function is reduced. They may feel like their stomach ‘is in knots’ or feel ‘butterflies’ – all indications of increased sensitivity to visceral nerves.  Stress reduces our pain threshold so we feel discomfort more easily. They may lose their appetite or feel a sudden urge to use the toilet.  These are all natural consequences of the stress response but will resolve once the stress is over.

With significant or prolonged stress, as is the case of chronic stress, then the situation worsens.  The ‘fight or flight’ response slows down digestion as explained above.  It can trigger or worsen pre-existing digestive problems.

The big problem is long-term stress can disrupt the make-up of the friendly bacteria in our gut that supports our health.  This becomes a slippery slope that leads to more and more problems.  Because our gut and brain communicate, it can also lead to mood and mental health issues as well as impact other areas of the body, such as the heart.

Is there anything we can do to directly support our gut health during stressful periods?

Part of the answer lies in managing our response to stress.  It is impossible to avoid stress altogether, and we shouldn’t want to as a certain amount makes us stronger.  We can limit the amount of stress we experience. Or, we can change our response to stress and how we experience it.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

The phrase ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ expresses how a change of outlook can positively impact how we experience the problems we face.  This is a helpful first step to putting our problems in perspective or even ‘prioritising’ which problems we work on first.  This psychological approach can be useful to reduce the impact of stress on our mind, and hence our bodies.

Apply the brake!

We can also take physical action to alter how our body responds to stress.  We can apply the ‘brake’ to the stress response by activating the vagus nerve. This is the parasympathetic nerve that connects the brain with the gut. It calms the body and supports our digestive function.  And to do it is as easy as breathing! Slow, deep breathing to be precise – the slower and deeper, the better.

Yoga practice and meditation will also have a similar effect on the vagus nerve. This helps us to recover from stress faster, and practice better relaxation.

Love your bugs

A healthy diet provides its own benefits to reduce stress and improve digestion.  Increasing the amount of fibre in the diet, and consuming more fermented foods or a probiotic supplement can improve the natural balance of beneficial gut bacteria that can be reduced by stress.  Beneficial bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids which fuel the cells in our large intestine, keeping our gut healthy.

Magnesium, magnesium and more magnesium

Nutrient absorption can be compromised by the effects of stress, so ensuring a good supply of essential nutrients is important.  Magnesium is especially helpful to support the stress response as it increases the amount of GABA, a neurotransmitter that supports relaxation.

Stress also reduces our body levels of magnesium, and magnesium deficiency worsens the stress response – a vicious circle. A magnesium supplement can improve our resilience to stress and help relieve the symptoms associated with it.  Magnesium supports healthy diversity of our gut bacteria as well as keeping the bowels regular.

Herbal helpers

Herbs are also very useful in supporting how our body responds to stress and improving our resilience.  Nutra-Life Magnesium Stress Ease provides a great combination of magnesium with three powerful herbs – Holy Basil, Ashwagandha (Withania) and Rehmannia. These herbs have been used for centuries to support the body to cope during times of stress, reduce fatigue and promote recovery.


Thanks to Kelly for answering our questions! If you have a question about stress, get in touch and we could answer it next time.

The Nutra-Life team x