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Can Stress Affect Your Gut?

Reviewed by
Dr. T Lakshmikanth 89% (18 ratings)
MS - General Surgery, MBBS, Fellowship in Laparoscopic & Advanced Laparoscopic surgical, Fellowship in Surgical Gastroenterology
Gastroenterologist, Hyderabad  •  25 years experience
Can Stress Affect Your Gut?

A stressful event like speaking in public, going to a job interview can give you butterflies in your stomach that may literally make you want to run to the bathroom. Stress affects every aspect of our lives including digestion. This includes indigestion, heartburn and irritable bowel syndrome. When put in a stressful situation, the body releases hormones known as corticotropin-releasing hormone or CRH. This, in turn, signals the adrenal gland to pump out adrenaline and steroids that help with the body's flight or fight response. Here are a few ways stress affects the gastrointestinal system.

  1. Stress kills appetite: Stress eating is a real problem that results from the contradictory reactions of hormones. The hormones released by stress kill a person's appetite, but at the same time, the steroids released by these hormones make the person crave unhealthy foods like ice-cream, chocolate or potato chips. These foods aren't easy to digest and can cause indigestion, gas buildup and heart burn.
  2. Stress leads to ulcers: Ulcers are caused by bacteria, but stress strengthens the infection and disturbs the balance of hydrochloric acid and protective secretions in the stomach. This increases the risk of ulcer formation in the stomach. Once the ulcers are present in the stomach, stress can worsen the symptoms.
  3. Stress alters the gastrointestinal pathophysiology: Stress can cause changes in gastrointestinal secretions and reduce the amount of oxygen available to the digestive system. It also impairs gastroduodenal motility and the amount of enzymes being secreted by the pancreas. Additionally, it interferes with the passage of food through the intestinal tract and alters colonic motility. Stress also affects the absorption of nutrients from the stomach and increases the blood flow to the digestive system by four times the normal amount thus decreasing metabolism rates.
  4. Stress affects irritable bowel syndrome: Stress in itself does not cause irritable bowel syndrome, but can worsen the situation. This is because stress can make the colon contract and cause abdominal pain. These contractions are usually uncoordinated and can lead to constipation. It also makes the body more sensitive to pain thus increasing discomfort.
  5. Stress lowers immunity: A large part of the immune system is housed in the gut. Stress reduces the secretion of enzymes in the gut and leaves the digestive system vulnerable to bacterial infections. By weakening the immune system in the gut, stress also increases the risk of suffering from infections in other parts of the body.
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