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How Stress Affects Digestion

Updated on August 3, 2013

Stress levels and digestive issues

Survey Carried out in County Mayo Ireland

A survey carried out in 2012 surveyed the link between digestion and stress. According to the survey, not only are we getting more stress in our lives but it is affecting health. over half said they were always stressed, and rushed their meals

  • 48% claimed stress caused pains or spasms in the stomach area
  • 36% claimed stress caused them to feel bloated
  • 36% claimed stress caused them to suffer from gas and flatulence
  • 35% claimed stress caused them diarrhoea

I have been studying stress management and holistic nutrition. It is surprising how when stressed we tend not to actually notice what we are eating, rush our food without actually tasting it, and possibly eat is so fast we forget we have eaten, or eat while doing something else such as working or worse still walking about.



Recognising you are stressed

The Signs

When you are so busy, with no time at all, it is difficult to actually recognise that you are in a state of stress, and there are some people who actually thrive on it.

Stress puts such a strain on your whole system.

The signs to look out for which could mean you need to slow down and relax are

  • Forgetfulness
  • Poor or lack of concentration
  • Racing thoughts
  • Raised heart beat
  • Chest pains
  • Stomach pains/cramping
  • Diarrhoea or constipation
  • IBS
  • Erratic eating - under or over eating
  • Poor decision making or indecisiveness
  • Moody
  • Bad tempered or irritable
  • Overwhelmed
  • Nail biting or pacing

Just a few!

Tummy Upset Caused by Stress

Digestion Problems

When we are uptight and stressed, our body is too, so it therefore does not work as well as it should. We produce hormones when stressed, these hormones are to help up get through a difficult situation, but, in this modern world, we do not have the same sorts of situations we did thousands of years ago, the stress today tends to be to do with work, relationship problems, money and so on.

Stress is not a bad thing, we do need it, but long term stress is very different. Our bodies are always on alert, ready for action, tense and this is not good for us at all.

This makes our digestion either rush through and not take out the nutrients needed for us to repair and live well, or sluggish and slow, giving us gas, wind, constipation and bloating.

To make the whole thing worse, we are rushed, have no time, so eat on the go, eat ready made food, we don't let our body rest and digest. We rush, so our body rushes. We have not got time to eat fruit or make a nutritious lunch, we grab a sandwich at our desk, with a coffee and gulp the whole lot down without even noticing we have eaten it.

It is by no coincidence the IBS is so common in our modern and hectic world.

When under threat, our hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of our brain, sets off a sort of alarm, through the nervous system, prompting our adrenal glands, located at the top of the kidney to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.

The adrenaline increases the heart rate, elevates the blood pressure and boost energy supplies. The cortisal, increases glucose in the bloodstream. It alters the immune systems responses and suppresses the digestive system, reproductive system and growth process.

Normally this does not last very long, until the threat has gone, but with long term stress the body thinks it is always under attack and these hormones along with other chemicals stay in alarm mode.

The long term effect can disrupt almost all of the body's processes, putting us at risk of a number of health problems, including digestive problems such as



Loss of appetite




Excess stomach acid

Weight gain or loss

Stress and Digestion

When under stress have you ever suffered from

See results

How do you suffer?

IBS - Irritable Bowel Syndrome

When our body's are stressed the hormones and chemicals released act on the nerves in our colon, making it go into a spasm. If we eat when stressed, or have long term stress, then our colon goes into a spasm, which leads to either constipation or diarrhea, also producing excess gas, bloating, cramping and painful abdominal pains.

Weight Loss or Gain

When stressed we can feel sick and not feel like eating and start to lose weight or crave for sweet foods such as chocolate, then we comfort eat, putting on the weight. Our weight might fluctuate which is also a strain on your body, over eating then under eating.

Loss of Appetite

Some of us lose our appetite when stressed and can't face food at all, we feel nausea, or full and just can't even think of eating anything, when this is long term, it becomes a habit and you start to lose weight, which can happen quite dramatically sometimes.


Stress can affect the movement of food through the stomach and intestines. This causes acidic stomach contents to linger in the stomach allowing more time for acid reflux to occur, which in turn causes heartburn and other digestive problems in the stomach.

Fresh Food

Take Control

1. Eat healthy fresh food

2. Don't drink too much while eating a meal

3. Relax during and after eating, to give your body time to relax

4. Sit at a table and take time to eat

5. Be mindful of what you are eating and how you are eating it

Take control of your eating habits

If it is digestive problems causing you problems then the first thing to do is to eat right.

Eat healthy and nutritious foods, cut out coffee, try fruit teas, or fruit juice. Cut out high fat or sugary foods, and always fresh, not processed, limit spicy foods, until you are feeling better

Eat slowly and let your body enjoy what you are eating, take time to eat, sit at the table and let you body digest the food you are eating.

Don't eat too much, if you take your time, you won't bolt it down and not feel that you have not eaten anything and then overeat

Sit and relax after you have eaten, ideally, not doing anything taxing at all

Don't drink a lot of water or liquid with your food, this dilutes the stomach acid which is digesting your food. So sip but not too much, and give it about an hour before you have a lot of liquid after eating.

Do drink water and hydrate your body though, as your body needs water to process the food you are eating.

Try to eat a balanced diet and if you can three meals a day, try not to graze through the day. If you eat and then let your system rest and digest what has been eaten before eating again, you are not putting too much strain on your digestive system.

Sit upright for at least two hours after eating to give your digestive system time to work, it has to work harder to move the food through your system if you are lying down, we are trying to help not hinder.

Help your digestive system to do it's job and relax when and after eating a meal

Just being mindful of what you are eating, and how you are eating will help you take your mind off the stresses in your life, take some time for you.

Reduce the Stress

Relaxation Techniques
New Hobby
A Day out
Deep breathing
Renew a old hobby
With the family
Painting or drawing
With friends
Listen to music
or meet new people
A few ideas to help reduce the stress

Reduce the Stress

Controlling stress is harder said than done, first of all you have to recognise that it is stress that is the cause and not another maybe more serious health problem. Which long term stress can lead to if not corrected.

If you can, take control of the situation that is affecting you, which depending on the situation may not be possible, but if it is, then do, take the stress away.

Try these to help reduce your stress and take your mind away from your worries.

Relaxation Techniques

Deep breathing


Tai chi

Get Outside - Exercise

Walking, running or cycling out in the fresh are is good for you and will help reduce the stress too

Take up a Hobby

Take a none competitive hobby, such as gardening, painting, or photography, all of which are creative too.

Go and see Friends or Relatives

Get out and talk to people, interact with your family and make time for you and them.


Accept that somethings are the way that they are and can't be changed, just accepting a situation that can not be changed can help sometimes.

A Treat

Get a back or foot massage, have your hair done, buy a lipstick (ladies only!) meet up with friends and have lunch.

Get Outside

A lovely walk maybe all that is needed to help
A lovely walk maybe all that is needed to help

Stress and Digestion

The two do not work well together.

Stress = Poor Digestion

Poor Digestion = Stress

You feel worse when you are stressed so when the stress is long term, and your digestion starts to get affected then the original stress will be made worse by the fact that now you also feel unwell too, can't eat, bloated, comfort eating or indigestion.

If we can reduce the stress, and be more mindful when we eat, take more time to eat, more time to let our food digest, help our body to work well. Then maybe we can feel more like ourselves again.

I hope you enjoyed reading this hub and learned something new.

© 2013 Lavender Jade


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    • Lavender Jade profile image

      Lavender Jade 4 years ago from Derbyshire

      thank you dwelburn

    • dwelburn profile image

      David 4 years ago from Chesterfield, UK

      Yes, chronic stress can worsen a great many health problems apart from playing havoc with your digestion. Good post.