By: Dr. Donna Powell & Dr. Renee M. Marchioni Beery at Gastro MD
April is Stress Awareness Month – a time to educate ourselves and others on the impacts of stress and why we should no longer see mental health as distinct from physical health. Stress may seem like an entirely mental state as we worry or feel pressured. However, stress can have a direct impact on our physical state because of the chemical reaction that occurs in our bodies when we experience emotional and mental tension. When we feel stressed, we may feel our heart rate increase, muscles tighten, blood pressure rise, or our breathing quickens. We may even feel discomfort in our stomach. But why?
The enteric nervous system is often called the “second brain” because it depends on the same types of neurotransmitters and neurons found in the central nervous system. The “brain-gut axis” explains the interactions between the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with intestinal functions. The enteric nervous system also regulates digestive processes like swallowing, releasing the enzymes that break down food, and categorizing whether food is a nutrient or a waste product. Because stress triggers a physical response in our bodies, too much stress or stimulus can impair the digestive system’s ability to function properly.
Stress can lead to various physical health issues, affecting digestive and gut health. Some of the gastrointestinal issues linked to stress include:
Coping with Stress to Calm Your Stomach
If gastrointestinal issues are common for you, learning to cope with your stress may also help manage symptoms of digestive distress. Identify what activities can relax you, such as journaling, hiking, meditating, or gardening.
Get plenty of rest, eat well, and take time off if you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress. Avoid drugs and alcohol. Those activities may worsen your feelings of stress while also triggering issues in the gut.
Talk to someone you trust about your mental health – like a parent, a close friend, a therapist, or even your doctor. Recognize what your stress triggers are and discover how you may want to deal with them; not everyone will feel ready to face their issues head-on. For some, preventing those stress-triggering experiences means avoiding toxic people, negative interactions, and emotionally damaging environments. A licensed counselor may be able to help you work out why you feel overwhelmed and stressed in certain situations and teach you how to cope in a way that feels right for you.
It’s important to understand that although stress can trigger the symptoms of a condition like inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, it does not cause the disease. However, other gastrointestinal conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, for example, may be exacerbated by a history of stress and trauma. So even though a person may be experiencing severe abdominal pain, it doesn’t immediately mean it is stress-related. And a thorough gastrointestinal workup may reveal underlying issues not related to stress but another physical condition.
For more on gut health, contact Gastro MD. We are a cutting-edge clinical gastroenterology practice that sets the standard in digestive health care.