How Anxiety Affects Digestion, and Vice Versa

You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you’re scared? Worried? Anxious? Have you ever wondered WHY you feel it in your gut? Or why they even call it a "gut feeling?"  

I always wondered this. I also always couldn’t understand why my stress levels always seemed to correlate with my constipation, or in some of my friends’ cases given them IBS-like symptoms. This seems to be a common problem these days: digestive distress symptoms arise and we either just deal with it, or go to the doctor, who sends us to a gastrointestinal specialist, who tests us for all kinds of conditions. In some cases, we get a diagnosis, and in other cases we leave doctors scratching their heads as to why we are experiencing symptoms without an underlying cause.

I’ll just cut right to the chase here... and bear with me while I drop some knowledge bombs on you: 

Scientists have discovered a complex system of neurons that line the GI tract from esophagus to rectum known as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). Your gut houses 95% of the serotonin for your whole body, the rest is found in the brain. According to Medical News Today: Serotonin is thought to be especially active in constricting smooth muscles, transmitting impulses between nerve cells, regulating cyclic body processes and contributing to wellbeing and happiness.” The biggest takeaway there is the fact that Serotonin is both responsible for regulating bowel function AND regulating mood, anxiety and happiness.

Those two facts alone tell us everything we need to know about the connection between not only the mind and body, but stress and digestion: if you’re anxious or stressed, you are firing off stress hormones, lowering your levels of serotonin, therefore throwing your digestive rhythm off which may result in constipation, bloating, diarrhea, and even symptoms in the upper GI tract like acid reflux or heart burn. Consequently, when you’re in a relaxed, balanced, happy state, your digestive rhythm likely is too. Of course, the relationship here is bi-directional and much more complicated than that, but if we know there is a connection there, then we can at least use that information to our benefit!

One more thing to note here, is that if negative emotions can cause digestive distress, then digestive distress, can cause negative emotions. Granted, it’s a given that digestive distress will put someone in a bad mood…but it may be deeper than that. It’s possible that every day emotional well-being may rely on messages from the ENS according to Erman Mayer, MD, PhD, U.C.L.A. Professor and Author of The Mind-Gut Connection. I personally KNOW this to be true. When I eat sugar and other highly processed foods, I notice within a few hours not only has my energy dropped, but so has my mood. 

So you may be thinking: “OK, thanks for the biology lesson... But WTF am I supposed to do about it?” In our overly-stressful, sensory-overload lives, more often than not, people are running on empty, stretching themselves thin to excel in their career, see all their friends, go to all the weddings, bachelorette parties, after work drinks, networking events, weekend get-aways, and restaurant openings. Yet how often do we take 5-10 minutes for ourselves? Want to de-stress, put your anxiety at bay, and somehow free yourself from digestive distress all at once? Pick up some tools:

MEDITATION

You’ve heard it over and over and over and over from me. You read it on every wellness blog, website, and Pinterest, yet you still haven’t tried it. Stop making excuses for not being able to quiet your brain. No one can. That’s not the point. The point is to be aware: be aware of your mental patterns, be aware of your fears, be aware of what is giving you anxiety, and be aware that none of that defines you. Try an app, or find a local yoga studio and attend a class or meditation workshop. 

EXERCISE

If you can detach from your phone, email, social media, and work for 30 minutes a day and only focus on your work-out, you’re basically meditating. Exercise boosts serotonin levels, suppresses stress response, and if all else, distracts you for at least 30 minutes from your worries and problems. Bonus points if you can exercise outside, and even more bonus points if you can do it in nature (see: Forest Bathing for stress) 

TALK

I get myself into trouble when I don’t talk about my anxiety, worries, and stress. When it stays in my head, it spins around in circles. That circular pattern almost always ends in a spiral if I don’t check myself. You don’t necessarily need a therapist...if you do, go get one! If you have one, use it! If you don't have one just call your BFF, call your mom, siblings, husband, whoever that ‘safe’ person is for you. The ‘safe’ person should be a listener, and someone who can be honest and real with you. Sometimes just having a soundboard to bounce your thoughts and words off of can bring mental clarity.

WRITE IT DOWN (AND OUT)

Have you ever heard the saying about how worrying is like a rocking chair? Gives you something to do but doesn’t get you anywhere...? One way of decreasing stress and anxiety is what I like to call "writing it out." I call it that because it is an action I can take to take a worry and literally get it out of my head, and leave it on a piece of paper (or my iPhone notes). Writing down your worries, stressors, and anxieties in the form of a to-do list or even just one long stream of consciousness can put into perspective things that you have control over and things you do not. If you’re worried about a test you need to take, you can lessen your stress by taking action and studying. If you’re worried about the results of a test you already took, no action can be taken. See the difference? Writing it down at the very least externalizes it. Puts it on paper so you don’t have to worry about it anymore.  I use this one a lot when my to-do list runs rampant in my head while I’m trying to sleep. I get up, write it all down and know it is now impossible for me to forget, so I may as well go to sleep!

FOOD

I'm not talking about being hangry. Although if you are hangry, go get a snack and I'll wait right here, thats a real thing. No, I'm talking about foods that have antioxidants and minerals proven to boost your mood, and lessen anxiety! If you can plan ahead, incorporate things into your diet like ashwaghanda, blueberries, turmeric, chamomile tea, rooibos tea, asparagus, leafy greens, oysters, avocados, and CHOCOLATE.  

Tools to manage stress are your biggest defense against digestive distress caused by anxiety. Pick one up every time you feel anxious, stressed, or worried. Maintain a positive mindset by taking care of yourself daily with gratitude, meditation, and mindfulness. It very quickly becomes a habit, and habits like this are what transformations are made out of!