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Stress and the gut-brain connection

Published:Wednesday | January 25, 2023 | 12:10 AMKeisha Hill/Senior Gleaner Writer

The gut-brain connection is no joke as it can link anxiety to stomach problems and vice versa. Have you ever had a gut-wrenching experience? Do certain situations make you feel nauseous? Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach? We use these expressions for a reason as the gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion including anger, anxiety, sadness, elation. All of these feelings and others can trigger symptoms in the gut.

The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines. For example, the very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before food gets there. This connection goes both ways. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That is because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected.

This is especially true in cases where a person experiences gastrointestinal upset with no obvious physical cause. For such functional GI disorders, it is difficult to try to heal a distressed gut without considering the role of stress and emotion.

According to Natalie Murray, health coach and director of the Life Store Wellness Boutique, whenever you experience stress, the fight or flight syndrome becomes activated. You get prepared to either fight against the stressor or flee from it.

In medical terms, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis sets in motion a cascade of biochemicals and hormones that end in the stimulation of your adrenal glands and the release of cortisol. This starts your body’s fight against the effects of stress, and not only does this stress hormone affect stress, but it also affects other parts of your body, especially the digestive system.

During stressful experiences, according to Murray especially chronic stress, the level of cortisol in your bloodstream increases significantly. As a result, negative impacts occur on many of the body’s systems, especially the digestive system.

“Normally, cortisol plays a major role in your body’s nutritional needs. This makes up one factor involved in the relationship between cortisol and the digestive system. In order to meet the physical demands placed on it in a typical day, cortisol helps regulate energy by choosing the right combination of fats, carbohydrates, and protein. A chronic elevation of cortisol as seen in chronic stress brings negative effects on the immune system, weight, and risk of chronic illness conditions,” Murray said.

Hormonal imbalances

Another aspect of the relationship of cortisol and the digestive system involves biochemical and hormonal imbalances that come about as cortisol shifts your body’s functioning from everyday living to surviving. This shift sets aside those processes that do not contribute to immediate survival. Therefore, digestion slows or stops altogether until the stress is resolved.

“In the fast-paced, stressful lifestyle many people lead, your adrenal glands continue releasing large amounts of cortisol. As a result, your whole body experiences an imbalance of hormones and your immune system suffers,” Murray said.

“During the stress response, cortisol helps in redirecting blood flow from the digestive tract to the brain and large muscles. Therefore, digestion becomes suppressed when you experience stress. So, the constant experience of stress with its accompanying high levels of cortisol places a huge burden on your body due to challenges with the digestive process,” she added.

Given how closely the gut and brain interact, it becomes easier to understand why you might feel nauseated before giving a presentation, or feel intestinal pain during times of stress. That doesn’t mean, however, that functional gastrointestinal conditions are imagined or all in your head.

Based on these observations, you might expect that at least some patients with functional GI conditions might improve with therapy to reduce stress or treat anxiety or depression. Multiple studies have found that psychologically based approaches lead to greater improvement in digestive symptoms compared with only conventional medical treatment.

Are your stomach or intestinal problems, such as heartburn, abdominal cramps, or loose stools, related to stress? Watch for these and other common symptoms of stress and discuss them with your doctor. Together you can come up with strategies to help you deal with the stressors in your life, and also ease your digestive discomforts.