How Stress Affects Digestive Health: Tips for Better Digestion

5 minutes

How Stress Affects Digestive Health: Tips for Better Digestion

We all know that stress can take a toll on your mental health, but did you know that it can also affect your digestive health? When you feel stressed, your brain sends signals to release chemicals like adrenaline, serotonin, and cortisol. These chemicals can affect your mood and even impact your digestive system.

Stress can cause:

  • Acid reflux
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Excess stomach acid
  • Gas
  • Heartburn
  • Increase/decrease in appetite
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain/discomfort

When you’re stressed, your body goes into "fight or flight" mode, which puts digestion in the back seat. Yup, it's true! The stress response reroutes your body's resources to deal with the stressful situation, which can slow down your digestion. Your central nervous system slows down the contractions of your digestive muscles and decreases secretions for digestion.

If you occasionally experience stress, your body usually recovers and goes back to functioning normally. However, if you experience stress too often, your body may struggle to recover, which can impede your digestion and cause an upset stomach. And, more alarmingly, feeling stressed regularly can even contribute to the development of irritable bowel syndrome and ulcers.

For example, a study from 2022 found an association between depression and dyspepsia. Another study in 2021 found that anxiety and depression are quite common among younger patients with gastroesophageal reflux. In fact, this study recommended that patients diagnosed with GERD should be screened for depression and anxiety. 

Another study found that patients who have gastrointestinal disorders were more likely to have symptoms of depression, severe anxiety, and childhood trauma, which are all risk factors for gastrointestinal disorders.

In short, it's important to manage your stress levels as much as possible. Whether it's through exercise, relaxation techniques, or taking breaks to do things you enjoy, finding ways to reduce stress can go a long way in helping keep your digestion healthy.

Here are some nutrition tips for reducing stress:

Eat regular meals and snacks

Eating regular meals and snacks throughout the day is important for alleviating digestive issues. That's why it's also important to avoid skipping meals. Waiting too long to eat, not eating enough, or having an unbalanced food intake (i.e. not eating enough and then eating large amounts in one sitting) are all potential causes of digestive problems. 

Eating regularly also helps prevent ravenous hunger that often leads to eating quickly and to the point that you feel overly full. To avoid this, it may help to find a quiet place to relax before eating and to eat at a normal pace.

Drink enough water

Drinking enough water is important for improving digestion because it helps keep food moving smoothly through the digestive tract. Water plays a critical role in breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and eliminating waste. When there is not enough water in the digestive system, you might end up with constipation, bloating, and other digestive issues. 
Staying adequately hydrated also helps keep the lining of the digestive tract healthy and functioning properly, which can prevent inflammation and other issues. In general, it is recommended to drink at least 8 cups (64 ounces) of water per day to maintain proper hydration and support healthy digestion.

Adjust fiber intake

Adjusting your fiber intake so that it is balanced is important for improving digestion because fiber plays a critical role in promoting healthy bowel movements and preventing constipation. Fiber adds bulk to stool, making it easier to pass through the digestive tract. 

However, too much fiber can cause gas, bloating, and discomfort for some people, especially if their digestive system is not used to high fiber intake. But at the same time, a low-fiber diet can lead to constipation and other digestive problems. Therefore, adjusting your fiber intake according to your needs is essential for improving digestion.

A registered dietitian can help determine the appropriate amount of fiber for your specific needs and help create a balanced and healthy meal plan for you.

Eat enough

Not eating enough and/or not eating a variety of foods reduces the healthy diversity of gut bacteria. So if you are working on increasing your food intake, it is common to experience some digestive problems before you notice any improvements. When this happens, you might jump to the conclusion that all foods are harming your digestive system and that following an elimination diet is the best next step. However, that doesn’t mean that you need to cut all types of food out of your diet completely. 

Before eliminating any foods from your diet, it is important that you speak with a dietitian who can help you identify which foods might be triggering digestive issues. A dietitian can also help you identify when emotions might be causing an increase or decrease in appetite so that you can be more attuned to physical cues for hunger and fullness.

Consume probiotics and prebiotic foods

You might also consider incorporating probiotics and prebiotic foods into your diet. Probiotics are healthy bacteria for your gut, which can help regulate digestion. Prebiotic foods, on the other hand, aid in the production of healthy gut bacteria. 

You can include the following into your diet, which is a good example of prebiotic foods:

  • Artichokes, 
  • Asparagus, 
  • Bananas, 
  • Beans, 
  • Beets, 
  • Chickpeas, 
  • Fennel, 
  • Flax, 
  • Garlic, onion
  • Ginger, 
  • Honey, 
  • Leeks, 
  • Legumes, 
  • Lentils, 
  • Oatmeal, 
  • Potatoes, 
  • Radishes, 
  • Rye, 
  • Turmeric, 
  • Turnips
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