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How does stress affect gut health?

Have you ever felt nauseous before a presentation? Stomach hurts when you’ve had a headache? We’ve all been through this type of distress, and it simply stems from the close relationship between our brain and digestive system. It’s quite evident that stress can have a massive impact on our whole body, and even more specifically, every part of our digestive tract. So, how exactly does stress affect our gut health? We’ll explain. 

The second brain

Ever heard of the saying that we have a ‘brain in your gut.’ This is somewhat true. More specifically, our “second brain” called the enteric nervous system (ENS) is located in our digestive tract. The ENS includes two layers of over 100 million nerve cells lined up against our gastrointestinal tract - from esophagus to rectum. So, no we don’t necessarily have a real second brain, but our ENS controls a large portion of how our gut health functions and reacts.

Enteric Nervous System role

The main role of our ENS is controlling digestion. This includes swallowing, releasing enzymes to break down food, control of blood flow for nutrient absorption, and elimination. As you can expect, this second brain of ours doesn’t have the full capabilities of our actual brain. However, it’s more so the system incharge if relaying gut information or feelings. According to Pasrhica, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, “[The ENS] communicates back and forth with our big brain, with profound results.” 

So when there is something happening in our gut system like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, upset stomach, and bloating - the ENS triggers emotional responses and sends that to the brain. This can then trigger enough stress to our body, mood, and the way we behave. 

Flight or fight response                                          

As you might remember from elementary school, when our bodies face a potential threat, we go through what is called a “fight or flight response”. This response stems from our sympathetic nervous system and when triggered, the stress hormone cortisol releases to alert and prepare our bodies to face said threat. The stress that enables our fight or flight responses to kick in alerts our brains, which then can negatively affect our digestive system. Dr. Koch states that some effects stress causes on our gut include esophagus spasms, indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, and constipation. Some more serious ones are IBS, peptic ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, and gastroesophageal reflux disease.


We’ve talked about all the problems, but what can we do to counter general stress and its effects on our digestive system? For one, getting regular exercise boosts endorphin levels, improves sleep, and relieves stress. Dr. Koch notes, “it’s one of the best ways to manage stress and maintain healthy digestion”. Another method is to avoid foods high in sugars and fats, and instead aim to consume food with plenty of vitamin C, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids. Lastly, practicing relaxing activities such as yoga and meditation. Both hobbies use the mind and body to counter stress. Another solution to better manage the impact that stress has on the body is to eat foods that promote gut health.

It’s common knowledge that stress heavily impacts our behaviour, body, and mood, but we don’t always directly associate stomach issues with stress. The truth is, our gut health is closely linked to our mental health.