Effects of Stress on the Digestive System

The holidays create many reasons for people to feel stressed: Buying and wrapping gifts, spending time with family, and mounting social obligations. Chances are if you?re feeling stressed about the holidays, or anything for that matter, you?re also feeling it in your digestive system. This is because the brain and the gut communicate with each other.

We know the brain is full of nerve cells (called neurons), but the gut also lined with millions of neurons. In fact, there are more neurons in the gastrointestinal system than in the spinal cord. The neurons in the gut make up what?s called the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS communicates with the central nervous system (CNS) to form the gut-brain axis, which is why stress can influence the behavior of the digestive tract. But how exactly does stress influence digestion?

Stress Can Affect Gut Motility

Peristalsis is a type of motility that is characterized by continuous wave-like motions of the muscles within the gastrointestinal (GI) tract created by rhythmic contractions and relaxations. These movements push food through the digestive tract, starting with the esophagus after we swallow food, and ending with excretion of food through the rectum.

Stress can interrupt the normal functions of peristalsis, causing the muscles of the digestive tract to spasm, leading to either diarrhea or constipation.

Stress Can Aggravate Acid Reflux

Chronic stress has been shown to make symptoms of acid reflux worse. A study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology surveyed more than 65,000 people in Norway regarding gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) symptoms. Researchers found that patients who reported low job satisfaction were twice as likely to develop GERD symptoms compared to patients who marked high job satisfaction.

Stress Can Disrupt the Natural Balance of Healthy Bacteria in the Gut

The gut microbiome is a complex community of microorganisms within the GI tract. In addition to helping us digest our food, these microorganisms are an important part of our immune system and overall health. When the delicate balance of the gut microbiome is affected, this can lead to changes in bowel habits or even a compromised immune system.

A study published in Scientific Reports shows that stress can negatively affect the gut microbiome similarly to a high-fat diet and can even lead to obesity. To examine this relationship, scientists observed the effects of stress on the gut microbiome in mice. During this study, mice were fed either a normal diet or a high-fat diet. The mice that were fed a high-fat diet saw a greater change in gut microbiome when stressed, compared to mice that were on a normal diet.

Schedule Your Colonoscopy Before the New Year!

If you?re one of the millions of Americans who have not scheduled a recommended colonoscopy, consider doing so before the new year. Colonoscopy is the most effective way to prevent death from colon cancer. To schedule a colonoscopy, make an appointment online or call 1.800.818.8541.