Stress and Digestive Troubles: Why Your Stomach Reacts and How to Soothe It

April 24, 2024   •  Posted in: 

One of the most immediately recognizable physical symptoms of stress is stomach troubles. When you’re feeling very scared or nervous, you might have a stomachache or even feel nauseous.

But what, exactly, is the connection between digestive issues and stress, and how can you soothe your stomach when it’s acting up? This article provides scientific evidence behind the stress-gut link.

The link between the stress response and the digestive system

Most of us know from experience that stress can lead to stomach pain and other digestive issues. The science backs this up; the gut and the brain are so closely linked that the gut is sometimes called the “second brain.”

This is partly because the gut has the second-highest amount of nerves in the body (second only to the brain), so anything that affects your brain is likely to affect your gut as well.

The link between digestion and your brain – often called the “gut-brain axis” – becomes even clearer when you understand stress.

Stress and your nervous system

We use the word “stress” in everyday language, but the term refers to a specific process in your body. The sympathetic nervous system, part of your autonomic nervous system, activates the stress response. The autonomic nervous system is a complex map of nerves that connects your brain with the rest of your body.

When your brain senses a threat, the sympathetic nervous system activates the stress response, leading to body changes designed to help you fight or flee from the perceived danger. This response is called the “fight-or-flight response.”

For example, your heart might start beating faster to pump more blood into your muscles. Your senses of vision and hearing get sharper. You start breathing faster to intake more oxygen. Your body is ready to go!

When the threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system activates the body’s relaxation response, which brings all of your body systems back to baseline.

The gut-brain axis

Contrary to common misunderstanding, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems aren’t the only two components of the autonomic nervous system. The third part, the enteric nervous system, controls digestion.

The enteric nervous system responds to the same neurons and neurotransmitters as the brain and spinal cord. These cells in the enteric nervous system help the stomach and digestive tract sense when food has entered the system, cause contractions in the intestines that push food along, and break the food down into nutrients and waste.

The enteric nervous system also plays a role in the stress and relaxation responses. For example, most people lose their appetite when under acute stress (it would be rare to be hungry while physically attacked). That’s because digestion slows down during the fight-or-flight response, so your body can save energy to fight (or run away from) the danger.

These short bursts of acute stress may be uncomfortable, though aren’t typically very harmful to your health. But when your stress response is activated for more extended periods – also called chronic stress – it can start to lead to serious gastrointestinal issues (on top of other health problems).

Your digestive system can’t function like it’s supposed to under the stress response, so chronic stress can lead to temporary pain and discomfort and contribute to developing more serious digestive illnesses[1].

How does stress affect your gut health?

Researchers have identified several different ways stress can affect your gut health. According to one peer-reviewed paper, there are six main effects stress has on the digestive system[2]:

  • Changes in gut motility: Stress can impact how quickly or slowly things move through your digestive system. It might speed up, leading to diarrhea, or slow down, causing constipation.
  • Changes in gut permeability: Stress might make your gut more permeable, meaning the walls of your intestines could allow substances to pass through more easily. This is sometimes called a “leaky gut” and could lead to inflammation or other issues.
  • Bacteria imbalance: Stress can disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut. Your gut has a community of microbiomes (bacteria) that help digestion and other processes. Stress can disturb this community, potentially causing digestive issues or other problems.
  • Increase in visceral perception: Stress may be linked to increased gut sensitivity, which causes one to feel pain and discomfort more intensely than usual.
  • Negative effects on gastrointestinal mucosa: Your gut lining – the gastrointestinal mucosa – absorbs nutrients from food and makes sure harmful things don’t get in your body. Stress can negatively impact the ability of your gut lining to heal and regenerate. It can also affect blood flow to the mucosal lining.
  • Changes in gastrointestinal secretion: Your digestive system releases different acids and enzymes to break down food. Stress can affect the glands that secrete these substances, negatively affecting digestion.

What are the gastrointestinal issues linked to stress?

Several long-term gastrointestinal health conditions are made worse by stress. To be clear, most of these digestive issues are caused by many factors, including genetics, diet, and stress. Some have no apparent cause. Stress does not cause these chronic illnesses but has been shown to make symptoms worse.

Stress and chronic gastrointestinal illnesses can also become locked in a cyclical relationship. Not only does stress make symptoms worse, but living with these conditions can affect life in such a way that heightens stress.

Some examples of the chronic digestive illnesses linked with stress include[3]:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): IBS is a common digestive disorder that affects over 10% of the population. It’s characterized by symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, and changes in bowel movements (diarrhea, constipation, or a combination). Stress is known to trigger or worsen IBS symptoms, and managing stress is often a key part of IBS treatment.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): is when stomach acid frequently flows back into the esophagus, causing symptoms like heartburn. Stress and emotional factors can make GERD symptoms worse.
  • Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and other inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): Conditions like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis fall under the umbrella of IBD, which are chronic inflammatory conditions of the digestive tract. While stress doesn’t directly cause IBD, it can trigger flare-ups and worsen symptoms if you live with these conditions.
  • Functional dyspepsia: People with functional dyspepsia have persistent pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen with no clear cause. Stress and other psychological factors can contribute to the development or worsening of functional dyspepsia symptoms.
  • Gastritis: Gastritis is a chronic inflammation of the stomach lining. Stomach infections, diet, and certain medications are common causes, but stress also contributes.

Even if you don’t live with any of these conditions, you could experience stress-related gastrointestinal symptoms like:

  • Stomach pain
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Indigestion and heartburn
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Bloating and gas
  • Changes in appetite

These symptoms could be attributed to many serious underlying health conditions, so if you’re experiencing them, it’s important to see a doctor even if you think it’s stress-related.

What to eat when the stomach is upset from stress

If you’re having an upset stomach from stress, it’s essential to first get to the underlying cause. Although digestive issues are often stress-related, there could also be an underlying condition like IBS contributing to your symptoms. Talk to a doctor to rule out any underlying health issues.

What you eat can also make a big difference when stress takes a toll on your stomach. Choose foods that soothe your digestive system, and avoid spicy or acidic foods that could worsen symptoms of nausea and indigestion[4].

  • Gentle carbohydrates: Try eating easily digestible carbohydrates like plain crackers, rice, or toast that can provide sustenance without forcing undue stress on the digestive system.
  • Bananas: Bananas offer a convenient and gentle option for stress-related stomach issues. They’re highly nutritious and generally well-tolerated.
  • Ginger: Ginger root is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. It has also been recognized for its ability to relieve nausea and soothe the digestive system. Try it in tea or some ginger chews.
  • Probiotic-rich foods: Probiotic-rich foods like yogurt are also essential for stomach troubles. Choose plain, unsweetened yogurt containing live cultures.
  • Mashed potatoes and other root vegetables: Boiled and mashed potatoes are a comforting and easily digestible source of calories.
  • Herbal tea: Explore herbal teas known for their calming properties, such as peppermint or chamomile. These teas can be instrumental in alleviating stress-induced disturbances in the digestive system.
  • Broths and soups: Clear broths or light soups can comfort your stomach while providing nutrition and hydration.

Managing stress with professional mental health treatment

The best way to cope with stress-related digestive issues is to learn how to manage stress better. Sometimes, you may be able to do this through self-care methods, but at other times, you may need more professional support. This is nothing to be ashamed of.

If you’re dealing with digestive and other physical symptoms as a result of severe stress, our holistic mental health treatment programs at The Center • A Place of HOPE can help. We deeply understand that your physical and psychological health are woven together. Our founder, Dr. Jantz, created the proven Whole Person Care method in the 1980s. We believe treating mental illness isn’t just about looking at symptoms; it’s about helping you heal from within.

Learn more about how we can help you and your family.


1 – https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/stress-and-the-sensitive-gut
2 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22314561/
3 – https://www.med.unc.edu/ibs/wp-content/uploads/sites/450/2017/10/Stress-and-the-Gut.pdf
4 – https://www.gastroconsa.com/8-best-foods-for-upset-stomach/

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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