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The Gut-Stress Connection

We’ve all heard that stress can make you physically sick, and the mounting evidence yielded by reputable scientific studies continues to reinforce that claim. Specifically, the gastrointestinal (GI) system — or gut — has a direct interaction with the brain and emotional health.

Terms like “gut-wrenching” and “butterflies in your stomach” are our attempts to describe the physiological reactions of our natural gut microflora to these alarm signals sent from the brain when facing stressful situations. The brain says “React!” and the gut responds with “OK!” When gut microflora is thrown out of balance for any reason, a domino effect of health problems begins to occur, and stress is usually a major culprit in this scenario.

The accumulation of even low-level stress over time can tip the balance of the gut microflora, ultimately throwing various body systems into disorder. Some of the resulting health issues stemming from stress-triggered microflora imbalances include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Candida overgrowth/yeast infections, food allergies and intolerances, and chronic autoimmune disorders like Crohn’s disease, Grave’s disease and others. All of these conditions are at minimum quite unpleasant, and when left untreated can lead to catastrophic health problems.

Does stress cause gut problems? Or do gut problems cause stress? The answer is both. Stress leads to illness, and illness causes stress. Until that cycle is interrupted, feeling good again can seem out of reach for those stuck in the stress-illness-stress quagmire.

Stress has existed since the dawn of humanity as a necessary function for survival. In prehistoric times, stress — especially fight or flight response – was an important life-saving mechanism to help people avoid being eaten by predatory animals.

Modern life, however, has ushered in a plethora of new stressors. While some are still survival-related, the stresses we experience today have less to do with succumbing to animal attacks and more to do with surviving the faster pace of 21st-century life.

Just a few decades ago, who could have imagined the emotional impact that being “unfriended” on Facebook could have? Equally, the thought of having every tragic event broadcast live at your fingertips was unfathomable. Even people who remain disconnected from the electronic universe find themselves in a world fraught with perceived fears and urgencies at almost every turn. Sometimes it’s enough to “turn your stomach.” You see the connection?

Although it’s hardly a new issue, some of the biggest stresses we face involve other people. Extra stress can be generated by interpersonal relationships, whether it’s family, loved ones, friends, co-workers, a cranky neighbor, or even a difficult person online. The stresses created by these relationships can range from very mild and occasional to severe and often. Whatever the severity, the stomachache you experience after an argument is no coincidence.

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The faster pace of life today can leave very little free time for relaxing, spending quality time with loved ones, or cooking. Consequently, fast food has become the norm for millions of people, though the convenience of these quick bites has a price beyond dollars. Most fast food is highly processed and unhealthy in various ways, thus leading to gut imbalances much more quickly.

Too often we’re also rushed to devour our meals quickly so we can get back to the demands of life. Your digestive system is programmed to react aggressively, so when the gas, bloating or stomach pains hit you, they shouldn’t come as a surprise. Your gut is in battle mode, and battles are never pleasant.

Multitasking is now the norm. Completing several jobs at once is often required in work environments due to economic pressures and downsizing. Many have said “I’m doing the work of 10 people,” and many are not exaggerating. While technology has streamlined some processes, most overtasked people experience high stress over racing the clock to finish all of that work before they can take a break. Consequently, many people end up eating at their desk while working, which is no break at all. Again, the gut reacts and the dominoes continue to tumble.

Like speed-eating, stressful eating is equally harmful to gut health. For many people, quality time at the dining table has become a rarity due of busy schedules, so eating on the run is not uncommon.

It’s quite surprising how many people – especially working women with kids – skip breakfast. By the time they do have a meal, whether it be lunch or dinner, they are starving and tend to overeat. People who skip breakfast are also more likely to consume more sugary drinks, processed snack foods and chocolate, looking for an energy boost. The digestive system races back into red alert mode, sending distress signals to the brain.

People who eat later at night are forcing their bodies to work when their systems have already begun preparing to rest. Imagine being in bed ready to drift off to sleep, only to be rudely jolted back to full consciousness by a fire alarm. Similarly, your gut is naturally stressed by the incoming-food-after-hours alarm, and is not likely to react well to such an event.

Many people rely on caffeine to keep them going throughout the day. On the other end, many people also rely on alcoholic beverages to escape the stresses of the day. Both scenarios can wreak havoc with our nervous and digestive systems, ultimately resulting in an imbalance of the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis. As the HPA axis becomes increasingly compromised, our immune system becomes incrementally compromised, as well. This open the doors to a host of other health problems exacerbated by weakened immunity, including infectious diseases, autoimmune disorders, and even some types of cancer.

As conscious humans, we cannot completely eliminate every shred of stress from our lives. However, we can take effective measures to reduce our stress levels to a manageable point, which can bring surprisingly rapid relief from many of the physiological symptoms caused by mental stress.

  • Devote at least 20 minutes daily to a relaxation exercise.
  • Reduce caffeine and alcohol consumption.
  • Resolve personal issues with those causing you upset.
  • Make time for proper meals and quality time with loved ones.
  • Modify your diet to eliminate highly processed food products.
  • Certain herbs, minerals and supplements may help you relieve stress. Amino acids, chamomile, green tea and valerian root, among others, have shown to be helpful in stress reduction.
  • Exercise.
  • Step away from the devices whenever possible.
  • Consider counseling or stress management training.

Stomach ache photo available from Shutterstock

The Gut-Stress Connection

Eric Bakker

Eric Bakker is a naturopathic physician from Napier, New Zealand. Eric is the past Vice President of the NZ Natural Medicine Association and is currently on their editorial advisory board. He is a writer for the New Zealand Journal of Natural Medicine and several other magazines and newspapers in New Zealand. He has over 25 years experience in natural medicine. Eric Bakker is the founder of and the author of several books. You can also find Eric on LinkedIn or watch his videos on his YouTube channel.

APA Reference
Bakker, E. (2018). The Gut-Stress Connection. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.