How Stress Gets to Your Gut

Woman Has Stomach Ache Sitting on Bench at Park A recent review of the medical literature turned up an interesting paper on stress and its effects on the gut1.  Stress can affect gastric secretion, gut motility, and mucosal permeability (“leaky gut”). Now we find that the bacteria in our gut also respond to stress. When we encounter stress we often feel it in our guts. Chemicals produced by the adrenals in response to stress can cause the gut to spasm producing a real physical pain. Our bowels may urgently decide to evacuate, or we feel nauseous and vomit. Compounds such as norepinephrine can affect the microbiome by increasing levels of proinflammatory cytokines; which in turn increase the pathogenic effects of E. coli or other bad bugs. Chronic stress is associated with prolonged activation of the stress response areas in the brain, especially those areas involved in perception of gut pain. The disrupted brain-gut connection can lead to reflux, peptic ulcers, irritable bowel disease and food allergies. The paper then focused primarily on how stress exacerbates irritable bowel syndrome. While mainstream medical therapies were mentioned, I was happy to see that diet, probiotics, behavioral therapy and stress management were particularly emphasized. Stress is not going away.  It does not matter who you are or what you deal with on a daily basis, we all have something to worry about.  It is important to understand that taking care of our digestive system involves much more than just what we eat or don’t eat. A holistic approach to health also includes mental health.  

  1. Konturek PC, Brzozowsi T, and Konturek SJ. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J. Phys. Pharmacol. 62(6):591-599, 2011.