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How Stress Affects The Gut

As the world is on a roller coaster pace, the level of stress we are enduring is getting worse than ever. This is affecting everyone young and old. While we are used to the emotional and mental toll of it, stress can affect your gut health and overall well-being.

Life’s stress can add up even if they’re small. For example, being stuck in traffic, thinking about the never-ending deadlines. The long list of chores, not having enough time and the list goes on and on. The question how does stress affect the gut? is a legitimate question to ask and it is a resounding yes, it does and you may ask how?

Many studies have indicated that stress is the culprit of gut disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, (IBS)  Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), etc.

The Gut-Brain connection 

It all starts with the gut-brain connection also known as the gut-brain axis. This means there is constant communication between the two. As you may have noticed when you’re nervous and start running to the bathroom indicating the effect of stress. Which is a symptom you feel in your gut, stomach cramps, diarrhea hence stuck in the bathroom.

Here are 13 ways stress can impact your gut 

Alteration in  Gut Microbiome:  

Stress releases hormones that trigger and disrupt the gut microbiome thus changing the composition of the gut microbe population.

This type of stress can interfere with the growth of good microorganisms while flourishing the harmful critters and as a result becoming susceptible to digestive diseases.

Digestive Issues:  

Stress can make your gut more sensitive causing discomfort, pain, and many other digestive orders as well as deterioration of health.

Inflammatory response:  

During stress, your body releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are great when there is an immediate danger but when there is no eminent and stress is chronic it can lead to inflammation of the gut.  The constant state of stress damages the gut lining causing unwanted invaders to cross into the bloodstream. 

This disrupts the balance of good and bad microbes in the gut leading to inflammation. This is the beginning of a vicious cycle that can make you even more stressed and lead to more inflammation.

Leaky Gut: 

When the intestine becomes so sensitive due to high stress the gut becomes leaky and unwanted things like bacteria, and food particles enter into the blood barrier. Thus causing inflammation and autoimmune diseases such as Leaky gut

Immune system changes: 

The constant chronic state makes the immune system weak, making the gut vulnerable to infections and imbalance in the gut microbiome.

Mood-gut related issues:

.Because of the relationship between the gut and the brain ( the gut-brain axis) they affect each other, resulting in mood-related issues, nervousness, abdominal pain, and changes in bowel habits. Chronic stress can also affect communication 

of the brain-gut axis creating a disconnect leading to impacting mood, causing anxiety, and depression.

Food Choices: 

Comfort food:  When people are stressed they tend to increase the intake of unhealthy comfort food that is high in sugar, fat, and processed ingredients. Poor choice of dietary intake contributes more to gut inflammation by promoting the growth of bad microbes while killing the good ones. These choices have a negative influence on gut health.

Sugar and stress:  Sugary foods and drinks give quick energy that might give a temporary boost of mood. However this is very short and as a result leads to sugar crush, moody, and even more stress.

Processed foods: These foods have empty calories and you are never satiated. Also, their lack of nutritional value might lead to nutrition deficiency and disease

Overeating: Because this type of food lacks nutrients you don’t feel full when eating people continue eating which leads to overeating, obesity, gut disorders, and many other health issues

Emotional eating: Some people will eat food when they are on an emotional roller coaster to suppress how they feel. This might give them temporary comfort but doesn’t solve the underlying cause of stress. This is a dangerous unhealthy relationship with food that leads to a path of disease.

Gut health: The food choices you make today will haunt you in the future. It leads to gut disorders and also affects the gut-brain connection.

Nutrient absorption: When the gut lining is destroyed due to the effect of chronic stress alterations of beneficial microbes occur and the bad microorganisms increase.  Thus the digestive system is unable to absorb nutrients from food effect. Leading to malnutrition and disease.

How does stress cause stomach pain?

The bidirectional relationship of the gut-brain axis makes them affect one another. For example, if the brain experiences any distress it invites the other to make sure they share the distress. Because of this link sometimes the gut is called  “the second brain. 

The changes in the gut microbiome lead to changes in the movement of the gastrointestinal tract causing either slowed or increased motility that can result in stomach pain or discomfort.

Also, stress can make the gut increasingly sensitive to discomfort and can perceive normal feelings or sensations as pain.

For instance, one gut disorder with sensitivity issues is Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). People with IBS have highly sensitive gut they’re in between symptoms like stomach cramps, diarrhea, constipation, and pain. These symptoms depend on the severity of the condition and other underlying issues

What does a stress-related stomach ache feel like?

 People experience stress differently so the discomfort caused by it can differ.  This is related  to the body’s physiological response to  stress

Here are some of the common symptoms.

  1. Butterflies or Nervousness: Some people describe a stress-related stomach ache as feeling like “butterflies in the stomach” or nervousness. It’s often accompanied by a sensation of discomfort or mild pain.
  2. Muscle Tension: Stress can lead to tension in the abdominal muscles, causing a “tight” or cramp-like feeling in the stomach area.
  3. Bloating: It can affect digestion and may lead to bloating or a feeling of fullness in the stomach.
  4. Stomach Cramps: Stress-induced stomach cramps can range from mild to severe and are often described as sharp or stabbing pains.
  5. Nausea: It triggers feelings of nausea or queasiness, sometimes leading to actual vomiting.
  6. Changes in Bowel Habits: Stress can cause changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation, and these changes can be accompanied by abdominal discomfort.
  7. Dull Ache: Some people may experience a persistent, dull ache in the stomach region, which can come and go with varying intensity.
  8. Heartburn or Acid Reflux: Stress can exacerbate conditions like heartburn or acid reflux, leading to a burning sensation in the upper abdomen or chest.
  9. Loss of Appetite: Stress can reduce appetite and cause a feeling of “emptiness” in the stomach.

How do you reduce stress?

Balance diet – A balanced diet that is rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats can provide essential nutrients that support health and help manage stress. Some studies have indicated a diet with fiber and Omega 3 fatty acids has the potential to reduce anxiety and depression, although more studies need to be done.

Herbal Tea – Herbal teas, like chamomile or lavender, can have calming effects and are excellent choices to reduce stress.

Hydration – Staying hydrated is essential for stress management. Dehydration can exacerbate stress symptoms, so drinking enough water is crucial.

Exercise – Exercise is important for stress reduction, it lowers cortisol production which is a precursor to all sorts of ailments. It also lowers, heart rate and blood pressure which makes the body relax.

In conclusion

  • Stress can affect both emotionally and physically on gut health and overall well-being. 
  • It leads to gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS, GERD, and SIBO as well as other autoimmune diseases like  multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • The gut-brain connection plays a critical role in how stress affects our digestive system
  • It changes the composition of the gut microbiome leading to gut issues, inflammation, and leaky gut.
  • The immune system gets weakened as a result of stress, which impacts mood and influences bad food choices
  • Stress causes stomach pain and discomfort creating symptoms like cramps, nausea, vomiting, bloating, etc.
  • Balancing your diet, exercising, hydrating, and drinking herbal tea stress and stomach can be reduced or eliminated.


  1. How Food Choices Affect Stress – Methods for Stress Management (unizin.org)
  2. Mechanisms of Stress-induced Visceral Pain – PMC (nih.gov)
  3. Inflammation‐driven brain and gut barrier dysfunction in stress and mood disorders – Doney – 2022 – European Journal of Neuroscience – Wiley Online Library
  4. Nervous Stomach: Symptoms, Feeling, Anxiety, Treatment, and More (healthline.com)
  5. Home Page: Current Developments in Nutrition
  6. How gut health affects mental health (optum.com)

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