Digestive flare-ups after a big meal, stabbing stomach cramps right before an exam and feeling butterflies in your stomach during a work presentation. Sound familiar? If you ever thought your gut and brain are linked, you’d be correct. Our brain and gut are in constant communication and stress can affect our gut in multiple ways (Madison and Kiecolt-Glaser, 2019).
Firstly, it can alter our gut motility (i.e., how food moves through us) which explains why some of us rush to the loo or become constipated when we’re feeling anxious (Taché, Martinez, Million and Wang, 2001).
Next, chronic stress can result in low stomach acid which we need to break down our food (Esplugues et al., 1996). Without adequate stomach acid, we’re more likely to experience symptoms such as reflux, stomach aches and nutrient deficiencies.
Being stressed can even change our gut microbiome and reduce the levels of ‘good’ microbes in our gut. This in turn can increase our risk for leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal conditions.
Finally, the more stressed we are, the more sensitive we are to pain (ouch!) (Dufton et al., 2008).
So how can we reduce our stress?
For many, stress is a major trigger for digestive complaints and hence managing our stress levels is key for overcoming unpleasant digestive symptoms. And whilst we can’t control external stressors (exams, work deadlines, terrible traffic, etc), we can improve our resilience to stress by implementing stress management techniques into our daily lives.
Diaphragmatic or belly breathing involves controlled deep breathing and has shown to be an effective tool for reducing both physiological and psychological stress. Belly breathing helps our body enter a parasympathetic or ‘rest and digest’ state (Ma et al., 2017).
So many of us rush from A to B and don’t make time to sit down and enjoy a meal. But when we eat on the ‘go’, our body is stuck in the sympathetic or ‘fight and flight’ state instead of the parasympathetic state.
Encouraging healthy meal habits such as taking a few moments to pause before our first bite, slowly chewing and removing distractions (sorry this includes scrolling through Instagram and watching Netflix) whilst eating are some great ways to switch our nervous system to the parasympathetic state. Trust me, you’ll notice such an improvement in your digestion with these mindful eating practices!
Whilst we are all aware of the mood-boosting and stress-relieving effects of exercise (thank you endorphins), there’s been extensive research on the benefits of yoga for improving digestive symptoms (including flatulence, abdominal pain, and diarrhoea) and reducing stress (Kavuri, Raghuram, Malamud and Selvan, 2015). Researchers believe the meditation, postures and breathing components of yoga assist with stress reduction.
Finally, these tips may be helpful for you to implement but I recommend brainstorming and creating your list of all the activities that help you feel less stressed. That way, you have your own toolkit to refer to when you’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious.