Our gut is called the second brain for good reason – there is just as intricate of a nervous system in our gut (enteric nervous system) as there is in our brain and spinal cord (central nervous system). There is constant cross talk that occurs between our gut and our brain and this communication is evident in a number of ways.

It is well document that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is related in part to chronic levels of stress, anxiety, and many other aspects of mental health. Even more severe inflammatory digestive disorders, like Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis, are affected by stress levels. There are other contributors and triggers of these conditions, but stress and overall mental health are important to pay attention to.

When we are subjected to chronic stress, it affects our digestion in a myriad of ways and animal studies dating all the way back to 2005 have been able to demonstrate this (1). Animals subjected to psychological stress were shown to have significantly impacted digestion. Markers such as small intestinal motility, microbiome imbalance and intestinal permeability were all impacted in these stressed animals – but what do each of these mean?

Small intestinal motility is how fast we move food through our small intestine. When food moves too slowly, it invites overgrowth of bacteria and can lead to the main symptom of SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) which is severe bloating and distention.

Microbiome imbalances signal an overabundance of “bad bacteria” to “good bacteria”. This study showed an overgrowth of E. coli in comparison to Lactobacillus. Lactobacillus is a beneficial probiotic bacterium and is a commonly used to assess the overall health of the gut microbiome.

Lastly, intestinal permeability aka “leaky gut” was shown to increase. This indicates that there is actual damage to the delicate border of the intestines, which leads to overactivity of the immune system in the gut and increased levels of inflammation.

Stress is an omnipresent force in our lives and we can’t always control the stressors that come our way, but we can control our response to them.  Whether it is through breathwork, meditation, supplementation, or other self-care methods, finding a method that works for you is crucial to controlling stress levels and improving your digestive health long-term.

If you have digestive issues that have gone unresolved for a long time (or even a short time!), make sure you are working with a doctor that understands all of the potential contributors and can help to comprehensively resolve them.

  1. PMID: 15800998