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What Happens to Digestion When You're Stressed

Digestion, Stress | September 12, 2017 | Author: Naturopath

Digestion, work stress

What Happens to Digestion When You're Stressed

“Stress” has a tricky medical definition. Sometimes it means being worried or feeling anxious, or having a sense of being rushed or running late; or it could refer to physical demands that the body is struggling to meet, like recovering from an illness or surgery, or increasing your physical activity or workout regime. It could mean the niggling “to do” list in the back of your mind that remains undone, or pressure from unhealthy relationships or workplaces.

To be frank, your gastrointestinal system doesn't care where the stress comes from – stress of any kind can severely affect your digestion.

How Does Stress Affect Digestion?

autonomic nervous system ENSThe body communicates with the digestive organs via two channels – chemical messengers (often hormones), and nerve signals.

Stress and digestion are primarily linked via a part of the nervous system called the “autonomic nervous system”, which communicates via both nerve impulses and the release of hormones.

The autonomic nervous system

The autonomic nervous system is divided into three systems:

1. Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)
This system becomes dominant when you are relaxed.

2. Sympathetic nervous system (SNS)
This system becomes dominant when you are stressed out.

3. Enteric nervous system (ENS)
Also known as the “second brain”, the enteric nervous system is made of 500 million neurons embedded in the lining of the gastrointestinal system from the oesophagus to the anus. Needless to say, it has a lot to do with digestion. It is independent in some regards but also responds to signals from the PNS and SNS.

When the PNS is dominant, we are in a state of “rest and digest”. Signals are sent from the vagal nerve to the ENS to promote digestive secretions, healthy churning of the stomach, and absorption of nutrients. Digestion is at its best under PNS dominance.

When SNS dominance occurs, stress hormones are released from the adrenal glands. These hormones target muscles and prepare the body for “fight or flight”, promoting a state of alertness, tenseness and speed. The SNS slows down non-essential body functions (like digestion) to redirect resources to the organs that are the most useful in evading danger – the lungs and heart.

Stress, or SNS dominance, and the redirection of resources affects the digestive system in these ways:

  • Decreases blood flow to & from the digestive system which slows down the whole system. Digestion is sluggish and absorption of nutrients is decreased.
  • Decreases digestive juices, making it harder for the upper gastrointestinal organs to break down food into smaller pieces. This affects saliva (ever feel like you have a dry mouth when anxious?), stomach acid, pancreatic and gall bladder secretions, and the mucous that helps to move digested food through the intestines.
  • Interrupts signals to the muscles of the digestive system resulting in cramping, muscle spasms, poorly digested food and sluggish (or over-active) bowels.

How Does Stress Affect Digestion?This is a great system when facing literal life-threatening danger, when we want all resources focussed on running or fighting – but it's not so great in daily life. It makes sense that acute stress from trauma, the loss of a loved one or major surgery could cause a short but intense period of SNS dominance. Unfortunately our bodies often react to everyday stressors as if they are truly dangerous situations.

Deadlines, traffic jams, mean bosses, money problems, relationship issues and self-esteem problems can all contribute to a low-grade SNS dominance that can lead to chronic digestive problems. 

Signs that Stress is Affecting your Digestion

  • Dry mouth or lack of taste when eating as stress stops digestive secretions including saliva.
  • Reflux and heartburn due to spasms of the upper oesophagus opening at the wrong time, overfilling of the stomach, and a decrease in stomach acid.
  • Indigestion or immediate bloating as a result of slow digestion in the stomach.
  • Bloating, flatulence and burping as gas is emitted by bad bacteria in the gut as they feed on undigested large molecules.
  • Diarrhoea as the large intestine spasms, or constipation as it seizes up.
  • Stomach or lower abdominal cramps as muscles spasm and gas stretches the intestines.
  • Pieces of undigested food in the stool may suggest that there are inadequate digestive secretions, but it is most often a sign that food isn't being chewed thoroughly – an indicator that you aren't taking enough time to sit, relax, and enjoy each meal!
  • Conditions such as IBS, autoimmune conditions, leaky gut, malabsorption conditions, may be linked to poorly digested food.

The obvious treatment for stress is to relax and recover. That's easier said than done, and sometimes all you can do is wait it out.

In the meantime, here are some natural therapies that can help to boost your digestion even while you're distressed:

Eating Well When Under Stress 

There are a few things you can do to help your body process food during a stress.

Focus on foodFocus on the food

Mealtimes are an chance to practice some stress-busting mindfulness techniques. Focus on the sight, smell, and taste of the food, and try putting all of your attention on chewing your food well. Eat slowly, and chew thoroughly to give your stomach a fighting chance to digest the food into small, absorbable molecules

Make it a meal

Give your digestive system time to rest and recover by avoid snacking throughout the day. Save food for meal time when you have a chance to sit down and relax (at least a little). Avoid eating “on the go” – sitting down helps the body to switch into PNS mode, while walking around keeps it in SNS dominance.

Keep it modest & well-cooked

The temptation to eat for comfort is at its highest when we're under stress. This often means huge serving sizes eaten as quickly as possible, followed by dessert. Avoid overloading your digestion by sticking to regular sized meals made with lots of well-cooked, nutrient-rich vegetables.

Eat with friends

Chatting with a group of pals while eating together is a sure-fire way to trick your body into relaxing while you eat. If you have a particularly funny friend, be sure to invite them along [6] [8].

Chamomile Tea

Herbalists use German chamomile tea to treat patients with stress-related digestive disorders. 

This herb relaxes the smooth muscles of the intestines to stop cramping and it helps to relax the sympathetic nervous system.

Studies have shown that chamomile tea and extracts can help to relieve anxiety, flatulence, nausea, diarrhoea and indigestion [1]. Prepare chamomile tea by steeping 4g of dried herb in 1 cup of water for 15 minutes, and drink between meals. 


Magnesium is the go-to mineral when it comes to combatting stress and muscle spasms. This key nutrient is required for nerve transmissions throughout the body, particularly in the enteric nervous system. It's also used by smooth muscles to relax, by the brain for feel-good chemicals that combat stress, and to promote PNS activity [2] [3]. Ironically, magnesium is also quickly eliminated when we need it most – when we're under SNS dominance [3].

Boost your levels by eating more leafy green veggies or by taking a good quality supplement (look for magnesium citrate or magnesium orotate on the ingredients list). If you're nauseous from stress, try transdermal magnesium by taking an epsom salt bath or using a magnesium oil spray. 

Digestive Enzymes

Digestive enzymes boost the stomach's natural secretions, helping to break down food and keep it moving along the digestive tract. This can relieve symptoms of bloating, burping, reflux and heartburn, and can prevent big undigested molecules moving through the intestines and causing damage [4] [5]. 

Digestive EnzymesSome digestive enzymes are taken from pigs or cows – not an appetising thought, but they are highly effective.

If that idea sends your stomach for a spin, stick to concentrated capsules of vegetarian enzymes like papain (from papaya fruit) and bromelain (from pineapple) which reportedly work just as well as the animal versions [4] [5].


Eating fresh ginger in your meals or sipping ginger tea can encourage movement of food from the stomach to the intestines. It stimulates the flow of digestive secretions and can soothe cramping, nausea, diarrhoea and bloating [7] [8]. Australia’s best online discount chemist


[1] Srivastava, J. K., Shankar, E. & Gupta, S. (2010) Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future. Mol Med Report.,

[2] Tarasov, E. A., et al. (2015)  Magnesium deficiency and stress: Issues of their relationship, diagnostic tests, and approaches to therapy. Ter Arkh., 87:9, 114 – 122.

[3] Santori, S. B., et al. (2012) Magnesium deficiency induces anxiety and HPA axis dysregulation: Modulation by therapeutic drug treatment. Neuropharmacology, 62:1, 304 – 312.

[4] Ianiro, G., et al. (2016) Digestive Enzyme Supplementation in Gastrointestinal Diseases. Curr Drug Metabol.,, 17:2, 187 – 193.

[5] Roxas, M. (2008) The role of enzyme supplementation in digestive disorders. Altern Med Rev., 13:4, 307 – 314.

[6] Hill, P. (1991) It is not what you eat, but how you eat it digestion, life-style, nutrition. Nutrition, 7:6,  385 – 395.

[7] Wu, K. L., et al. (2008) Effects of ginger on gastric emptying and motility in healthy humans. Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol., 20:5, 436 – 440.

[8] Bode, A. M. & Dong, Z. (2011) The Amazing and Mighty Ginger. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects 2nd ed.

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