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The effect of stress on the digestive system

Published on 21 March 2023

When you feel stressed, your body reacts in many different ways, from headaches and chest pain to stress-related digestive disorders.

Digestive problems caused by stress are common and affect the speed at which food moves through the body. These can occur from feeling nervous due to a job interview or going on a date to worrying about major events in your life.

We all cope differently with stress. Some people can overcome it by using relaxation techniques while others suffer in silence. This article looks at the cause of digestive issues and stress and gives you advice on what to do to alleviate this problem.

How stress affects your digestive system

Stress is not just linked to the brain, but to the digestive system too [1]. The stomach contains approximately 100 million neurons, similar to those in the brain, which is home to about 100 billion neurons. This is why the stomach is sometimes referred to as the ‘second brain’. While the stomach primarily takes care of digesting the food you eat it can also cause feelings like ‘butterflies’ or the desire to empty your bowels immediately if you feel stressed.

The neurons between the brain and the stomach are linked by the vagus nerve which is the body’s largest nerve. Have you experienced the ‘fight or flight’ feeling you get if you’re stressed or in an uncomfortable situation? This is your body’s way of protecting you against whatever is worrying you or putting you in danger.

Did you know that 95% of your body’s serotonin (the chemical that causes you to feel happy and affects your mood) is produced by the digestive tract?  This is one of the reasons why medication for people with irritable bowel syndrome adjusts their levels of serotonin. Lower levels of serotonin can cause constipation, while higher levels can give you diarrhoea [1].

One of the ways stress can affect digestion is that your body releases less stomach acid and digestive enzymes when you feel anxious which stops it from breaking down food correctly [2]. This can prevent the food from passing through your digestive system and also cause constipation or food to be released from the body as diarrhoea before it has been digested.

Stress and digestive issues can become a vicious circle as in addition to the cause of the stress you may also be concerned about your stomach problems. For example, if you have to make a presentation at work, you may be nervous anyway, and worrying about whether you’ll need to go the bathroom in the middle of it can enhance the symptoms.

What can cause digestive stress?

There are many reasons why we feel stressed, and many are due to being in a tense situation where we are out of our comfort zone. There is a sense of not being in control, which can cause a reaction in the stomach.

This may be due to public speaking, worrying about work deadlines, planning an event, or performing on stage – all kinds of situations can cause stress. What affects one person may be a challenge that another enjoys. For example, some people hate flying and will suffer from digestive problems beforehand, while others love it and get a thrill from being 35,000 feet above the earth.

It all depends on your coping mechanism and how you perceive certain situations. But one thing is certain, finding ways to deal with digestive stress symptoms can improve both your physical and mental health.

What are the common digestive stress symptoms ?

Feeling anxious can give you a nervous stomach and shows itself in different ways. You may have changes in your bowel habits or stomach pains.

Other symptoms of digestive stress include:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Flatulence
  • Indigestion
  • Constipation
  • Feeling bloated
  • Loss of appetite

It is important to address the problem if you have digestive-related stress to prevent other health problems. Prolonged stress weakens the digestive system as the intestinal barrier can become weak and bacteria can enter the body. While your immune system will usually fight off any bacterial infection, one of the long-term effects of stress on the digestive system can be irritable bowel syndrome [3], which is a common chronic condition.

If you are concerned about your digestive health, you should talk to your doctor in case you have an underlying health problem.

However, there is plenty you can do to control stress and digestive disorders and lead a worry-free life.

How to manage stress and reduce digestive problems?

The way you cope with stress and prevent digestive problems depends on the kind of person you are. Some people find going for a walk relaxing while others need to do sport to unwind. Whatever helps you feel calm should be part of your regular routine, not only to relieve stress but also to assist with your overall well-being.

If you have digestive problems caused by stress this is your body’s way of telling you to relax and spend more time doing activities you enjoy and less time worrying. We often concern ourselves with things that may never happen which causes unnecessary stress. Learn to recognise the signs of stress and deal with them before they get worse.

Here are some ideas to help reduce stress levels:

  • Make time for yourself – whether to read a book, socialise with friends or just spend time alone, ‘you time’ is essential for your good health.


  • Avoid triggers such as alcohol, caffeine and smoking. While these may give you short-term relief, they can fuel your anxiety.


  • Eat a healthy diet – including fresh fruit, vegetables and fish. Products containing Lactium® are a good way to calm you. Lactium® is a natural food ingredient made from milk proteins that can help you manage anxiety.


  • Try deep breathing and mindfulness. Meditation can be a wonderful stress reliever – even if only for 10 minutes at the height of a busy day.


  • Exercise regularly – whether you love to dance, run or cycle, physical exercise is good for you as it releases endorphins in the brain which are chemicals that can reduce stress.


  • Practise yoga – help your mind and body to relax with a daily yoga session. This alternative therapy uses breathing exercises, posture and relaxation techniques to make you feel at peace and forget your worries.


  • Get enough sleep – go to bed at a regular time and relax with a good book and a drink containing Lactium®. Keeping your phone and screens out of the bedroom will help you unwind and get a peaceful night’s sleep.


  • Talk about your problems – don´t bottle things up, instead talk to friends, family or colleagues or a professional if you feel unable to talk to someone you know.


It’s also important to look at what’s causing your anxiety stress and digestive problems and how you can improve your approach to life. You may be stressed because you’re always late, you have too much to do at home or work, or there are too many demands on your time. Only you can change these things and lead a calmer life.

Try looking at your time management skills if you have a busy schedule and break your day, week or month into achievable chunks. If people or situations are taking up too much of your time reduce how often you see them or do these things.

Careful planning can also eliminate stress. If you’re always late get up earlier or prepare everything well before you leave the house so you’re not trying to find your keys or gym kit at the last minute.

These are small changes that can make a big difference to your stress levels and help reduce the pressure on your digestive system.


To learn more about how Lactium® can help your digestive problems caused by stress contact us.