Stress and Your Digestion

Digestive issues are one of the most common complaints I see in my office. According to U.S. statistics, this makes sense.

  • 10 to 15 percent have irritable bowel syndrome
  • 15 to 30 percent experience acid reflux
  • 40 million Americans suffer from constipation

Does Stress Impact Digestion?

You may not realize it, but stress directly influences digestion through the brain-gut axis. The brain-gut axis is what scientists call the enteric nervous system, also known as the ENS. The ENS is composed of thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from esophagus to rectum. Its main role is controlling digestion: from swallowing, to enzyme release for food breakdown, to blood flow which helps with nutrient absorption, to elimination.

Exposure to stress can alter the ENS and ultimately lead to an assortment of gastrointestinal (GI) disorders including, but not limited to:

  1. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  2. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  3. Food sensitivities/allergies
  4. Peptic ulcers
  5. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

In fact, in my practice I’d say that stress is often the main cause of the gut issues I treat.

Stress disrupts GI function in numerous ways. It can delay how quickly food leaves the stomach. This delay causes bloating, discomfort, nausea and diarrhea (aka, “accelerated stomach emptying”).

The gut is especially vulnerable to the presence of chronic (and even acute) stress. What can be seen are stress-induced changes in gastric secretion, gut motility, mucosal permeability and barrier function, as well as visceral sensitivity and mucosal blood flow.1 Put simply, stress is bad.

The “Love Hormone”

Oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone,” counteracts the effects of stress on the gut.2 Oxytocin reverses the delay in stomach emptying caused by stress and it improves the motility (muscle contractions) of the gut. 

Oxytocin is also known as the “tend and befriend” hormone, because of its association with pair-bonding and connection. There are several ways to promote oxytocin release naturally:

  • Hug someone
  • Experience sexual pleasure
  • Get a massage
  • Watch an emotional movie
  • Listen to music that moves you

If you’ve got digestive issues, try incorporating oxytocin-boosting activities into your daily routine. You might find that they’re just as important as your diet, supplements, and other treatments you’re already doing. 

Closing Thoughts

Heal your gut, reduce inflammation, and provide a diverse array of friendly bacteria to your gut. These simple acts can make a big difference in your gut’s susceptibility to the negative effects of stress. Having a healthy gut flora can help regulate any hypersensitivity and leaky gut permeability you might be experiencing from chronic exposure to stress.



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Heal Well Nutrition

Chris Latham, MS, CNS, CKNS



918 Chapala St.
Santa Barbara, CA 93101

Certified Nutrition Specialist | Certified Ketogenic Nutrition Specialist