If you’ve ever been stressed, you know it can do a number on your digestive system. Whether it’s nervous stress (that feeling prior to a public presentation) or life stress (paying those monthly bills), it can really tie your stomach in knots. However, the impact of stress on the stomach goes far beyond indigestion. In recent years, doctors have discovered a complex connection between the brain and the digestive system. The entire system is extremely sensitive to our moods, such that experts now see stress as a major trigger in a wide variety of digestive problems, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), indigestion, and heartburn.
The stomach and intestines actually have more nerve cells than the entire spinal cord, which is why some experts refer to the digestive system as a “mini brain.” An entire highway of nerves runs directly from your brain to the digestive system, and messages flow in both directions. Coincidentally, ninety-five percent of the body’s supply of serotonin — a hormone that helps control mood — is found in the digestive system, not the brain.
There are many reasons our digestive system should pay such close attention to our brains. In times of stress, our bodies are designed to focus on the things that can help us stay alive. It’s the fight or flight response from our days as cave dwellers. When our ancestors had to fight off cave bears, they didn’t want to waste any energy on less important things like proper digestion.
When the brain is severely stressed, it unleashes a cascade of hormones, upsetting the entire digestive system. The hormones have different and sometimes contradictory jobs. For example, the hormone CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone) is one of the body’s main alert systems. In stressful situations, the brain pumps out CRH to tell the adrenal gland to start making steroids and adrenaline, chemicals that can give you the strength and energy to run or fight your way out of potentially dangerous situations.
CRH also suppresses appetite, which explains why some people can’t eat anything when they’re stressed. At the same time, the steroids triggered by CRH can make a person hungry, which is why some people fight stress with ice cream, chocolate, or potato chips.
Obviously, there are different responses to stress, and there’s no way to know for sure how specific situations will affect digestion. But there are some general similarities. Short-term stress can cause stomachaches, nausea, and diarrhea. Chronic stress can aggravate chronic diseases such as IBS and heartburn.
If you’re stressed out and your digestive system isn’t running smoothly, don’t suffer in silence. According to a report from the University of North Carolina, as many as 80 percent of people with IBS or another gastrointestinal issues never discuss their symptoms with a doctor. There are steps you can take to reduce your stress and help alleviate your digestive difficulties.