Battling digestive discomfort every time you get stressed? Here’s how to stop anxiety affecting your gut health.
Medically reviewed by Dr Louise Wiseman MBBS, BSc (Hons), DRCOG, MRCGP and words by Becky Fletcher
Do you suffer from bloating or irritated bowels when feeling stressed or anxious? If so, you’re not alone. Stress and anxiety are known to bring on (or worsen) gut troubles.
We speak to gut health specialist Dr Ashton Harper about why some people experience digestive discomfort when they’re stressed or feeling anxious:
How stress affects your gut
If you ever suffer from tummy troubles during a stressful episode, this is because your anxiety levels are connected to your digestive system.
‘There’s evidence that the brain and the gut communicate with each other via numerous systems (neural, hormonal and immunological) and do not function independently,’ says Dr Ashton. ‘Because of this interconnected relationship it means that if one system is disturbed it will result in the other system being disturbed. In simplest terms: mental stress at work = tummy upset.’
What causes gut troubles?
According to Dr Ashton, feeling stressed and anxious may induce a variety of digestive discomfort. ‘Alteration in the contractility of the gut may cause cramps or pain (increased contractility) and may influence stool habits – constipation due to reduced GI contractions may cause feelings of bloating,’ he says.
Additionally, bloating may occur without constipation and you could also experience increased heartburn as a result of your anxious feelings. ‘Decreased stomach emptying accompanied by increased oesophageal contractions may cause acid reflux,’ he adds.
How to treat stress-related tummy troubles
There are several things you can do to reduce the effects of anxiety and stress on your gut. ‘There is a direct link between our microbiota and our stress hormone system – alterations in our gut microbiota may lead to a heightened or suppressed hormonal response to stressful situations,’ says Dr Ashton. ‘The direct approach would be to identify the “stress trigger” and try to remove it, or alter its impact, from your daily life, where possible.’
If you feel yourself getting stressed out with a task take a mini-break from the activity.
For instance, Dr Ashton suggests, you may get stressed by not being prepared for some activity at work like giving a presentation – make sure that you allow plenty of time to adequately prepare and rehearse to prevent or reduce anxiety.
Think about how you can calm your day from the beginning – walking some of the journey to work rather than all of it being spent on busy trains or in traffic jams.
‘If you feel yourself getting stressed out with a task take a mini-break from the activity by making a hot drink or writing a list of things you would like to do with your weekend before returning to your work.’
Diet and stomach stress
Interestingly, increasing evidence suggests that gut troubles may also have an impact on anxiety and stress – suggesting the gut-brain axis works both ways.
Dr Ashton highlights the importance of looking after gut health more generally, such as consuming a balanced diet and taking probiotics. And if you suffer from IBS or allergies, take time and effort to manage your condition – eg by eating a low-FODMAP diet and avoiding foods that aggravate stomach issues.
Many people don’t realise that your mind and gut are linked. ‘With our busy, on-the-go lives, emotions we experience throughout the day, like stress, can affect our digestive system,’ says mindfulness expert Emma Mills. ‘Stress can trigger IBS symptoms; however quick and simple mindfulness and meditation exercises can help to alleviate this.’
To bring some serenity to your life – and your gut – try these techniques devised by Mills:
- Breathe it out
Sit comfortably and take 3 gentle breaths. As you breathe in through your nose imagine saying, ‘things come easily’ and as you breathe out through your mouth ‘things go easily’.
- Try the body scan
Sitting with your eyes closed, scan through your body in an objective way, as though you were just having a look. Start at the top of your head, and move down through each part of your body, paying special attention to your middle area. Sense all the intelligent processes that are naturally happening in the body eg breathing fresh air, your digestion, your heartbeat. Finish this with two gentle breaths in and out.
- Use visualisation techniques
Close your eyes, take a few gentle breaths in and out. Imagine the soles of your feet growing strong roots, like a tree and settling deep down in the rich soil of the earth. As the roots grow, you start to feel secure, anchored and nourished by life. Feel yourself as part of life, supported by life in each moment.