The Stress-Digestion Connection

Are you tired of hearing about all of the problems with being stressed out all the time?

Ya, me too. 

Because really! It’s not very helpful when stress is almost impossible to get away from. Between work, family, bills, and commitments, there’s no time to relax.

And, here I am about to tell you about another body symptom of stress. (Cue the understandably frustrated sighs)

But, I’m telling you this with the best of intentions, because we don’t always think of them as stress symptoms and they can REALLY cause a lot of problems in how you can function in the day.

AND, most importantly – if you stay with me to the end I’ll give you easy ways to help reduce these symptoms. I won’t leave you high and dry :).

The stress-digestion connection

For some, when they feel stressed out they feel STRESSED OUT. Anxiety, heart racing, all of those annoying symptoms that we feel before doing something scary.

Stress symptoms are sometimes hard to name, but we can usually recognize these symptoms of stress and anxiety when they happen. It could be a racing mind or a racing heart. It could be feeling overwhelmed or exhausted. 

For others, they stay calm, cool and collected. Well…mostly.

Instead of feeling mental symptoms of stress, they might feel it in their digestive system. They trade (not consciously) an anxious brain for an anxious gut. 

This is particularly common in kids, who might feel stomach pain or nausea when they’re going through a stressful time. 

But I also see this in adults. A LOT.

It’s an understandable coping mechanism for someone who has a lot of stress in their day. You can’t feel super anxious all day long for years, so your body begins to internalize these symptoms and they frequently pop up in your digestive system.

And, sometimes they happen only in the gut and are much harder to recognize as stress symptoms.

Actually, strong digestive symptoms are usually connected with how strong the stress is in their lives. And sometimes it’s unfelt anywhere else. 

A common personality trait of a client with stress-induced digestive symptoms is someone with a high-stress job (or life) that feels quite calm inside the storm. This is when the digestive system begins to make a fuss.

This can happen to me sometimes too…

…even though I know this connection I still forget sometimes (my humanness is showing :).

One memorable time was on the day I presented a talk at TEDxKelowna on the Gut/Brain Connection (the irony was not lost on me :). I was practicing my talk in my livingroom before I left and my gut was going haywire!!

Gurgling, cramping, painfully haywire! It was so frustrating! Why today???

And…all the while I was practicing a talk where I explained how anxiety can be felt in the gut. That’s when I finally clued in…and used the tips that are listed below to calm it down.

So, even I, who spends most of my day talking to people about stress and digestion can miss this connection in myself (insert eyeroll).

And, this all starts to make sense when we consider the gut-brain axis. 

Wrapped around all our intestines and other digestive organs is a collection of neurons (brain cells) so vast and complex its been dubbed “The Second Brain”. 

There are more neurons in your gut than you have in your spine!

Plus, these are a well-organized group of neurons, they produce lots of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine and manage the very complicated process of digestion.

Breaking food down into its individual components is a super mega complicated job and would be a huge burden on our brain’s energy, so it outsources this job to our lower brain :)

And so, it makes sense that a complex system that’s filled with neurotransmitters would react in similar ways as the brain. This is why we can have “gut feelings” and why we get butterflies in our stomach when we’re nervous.

It’s also why our stress reaction can get stuck in our gut.

Stress symptoms in the gut can be really varied and I’d argue that most indigestion symptoms have some stress component to them. And sometimes, these symptoms pop out after the stress is over.

Acid reflux/GERD, nausea, cramping, pain, diarrhea, and constipation are some of the common stress symptoms, and these symptoms can go from barely noticeable to so severe that it’s impossible to leave the house or go to work.

Stress-induced digestive symptoms can be VERY persistent and difficult!

4 steps to calm down a stressed out gut –

1. Notice the stress-digestion connection –

Your body just wants to be heard and simply recognizing the connection can calm down some of the symptoms (sometimes). 

A few questions to ask yourself when you’re feeling digestive symptoms –

- How are you feeling today? Dig deep, really try to name how you feel (from my own experience, recognizing emotions can be easier with some practice :).

- Have you had some extra stress in your life? Anything to be anxious about? 

- What digestive symptoms are you feeling? Sit and REALLY feel them for a moment. Notice everything that’s going on.

2. Bring in some relaxation techniques (just 5 mins a day can really help) -

A little bit of mediation, a quiet walk in nature, laughter, a happy moment with loved ones are amazing stress-repellents. Your body’s stress hormones relax quickly in these moments :).

Try – 

- a bit of presence the next time something great is happening. For a moment, just be there enjoying whatever is happening. This takes practice, but is SO worth it :)

- 10 mins of mediation can help train the brain to find a calmer state of mind. This was life-changing for me and my high-strung brain. The app Headspace is a great place to start. It has 10 free 10-min mediations that are really easy to follow.

- hang out with some trees. It’s called “forest bathing” and there’s some great research that finds that nature is a perfect antidote to our stressed-out lives. Just 15 mins is all you need…but more is even better :)

3. Soothe the gut –

Sometimes we just need help in the moment. Something to help us get through that stressful time. And, happily, there are some great gut soothers that can help A LOT.

Slippery elm powder – It’s like a soothing balm for your gut. It works for acid reflux, cramping, pain, constipation, and diarrhea. Mix 1 tsp – 1 tbsp in water and drink. Some feel better right away and for some, it takes a day or two.

Chia seeds – they slow down the gut and calm down irritated parts. Great for an anxious gut with diarrhea. Have 2 – 4 tbsp per day. Add to oatmeal, have in a chia tea or kombucha, or enjoy my favourite gut healing chia pudding recipe :)

A good probiotic supplement – there is preliminary research that suggests that probiotic supplements may help with anxiety and depression through the gut/brain axis. And it definitely helps with digestive symptoms! Give your favourite probiotic 2 – 4 weeks to work, and if your gut isn’t feeling better than try a new one.

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4. Reach out for some help -

It can be hard to figure ourselves out, especially when you have a lot on your plate already. 

Working with a trained practitioner who specializes in digestive issues (like me :) can help you weed through all of the options and get a customized plan just for you. It’s nice to have some support and a friendly voice when you’re dealing with an upset digestive system.

If you’d like some help, hop over to my Wellness Packages page and book yourself an appointment. I’d love to help you get your gut back in line and under control :).