There is a strong connection between stress and gastrointestinal (GI) disorders. Stress can trigger GI disorders, worsen existing symptoms, and make it more difficult to manage conditions. Moreover, GI disorders can cause stress, leading to a seemingly never-ending cycle of symptoms.
To learn about the stress-GI disorder relationship and how to improve symptoms, keep reading.
What Causes Stress
Stress is a common reaction to challenging life situations and potential dangers. Stress can have a wide range of sources, including work, school, interpersonal relationships, and financial or health concerns.
When you experience stress, your body releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones send your body into fight or flight mode, preparing you to confront danger. However, if you are constantly stressed, these hormones can remain elevated, which can lead to several health problems, including GI disorders.
Stresses Effect on the GI System
Stress can affect the GI system in many ways.
- When you are stressed, your nervous system sends signals to your stomach, telling it to produce more acid. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline also trigger the production of stomach acid.
- Stress reduces blood flow to the digestive system making it difficult for normal digestive functions to take place while simultaneously damaging the stomach lining.
- Stress makes your muscles tense throughout various parts of your body, the digestive tract included. This also slows digestion and causes pain.
- Stress also disrupts the balance of bacteria in the gut. The decreased blood flow makes it difficult for good bacteria to thrive, and the increase in hormones disrupts the gut microbiome.
Understanding GI Disorders
GI disorders are a group of conditions or diseases that affect the digestive system and the way it behaves. Some of the most common GI disorders include:
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Crohn’s disease
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Peptic ulcers
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Some individuals are born with GI disorders, some occur later in life, and some are temporary. A GI condition may develop for many reasons, such as infection, poor diet, stress, genetics, and autoimmune diseases.
Condition symptoms can include:
- Abdominal pain
- Trouble Swallowing
- Appetite changes
- Rectal bleeding
GI disorder symptoms are different for each individual. Some people show little to no symptoms, while others struggle to complete daily tasks.
Regardless of severity, all symptoms should be taken seriously. Neglecting symptom treatment can lead to worsening conditions or the development of new disorders.
How Does Stress Worsen GI Symptoms?
Stress not only has a major impact on the GI system, but it can also worsen symptoms that are already present or decreasing.
- Stress reduces the effectiveness of medications and makes it more difficult to adhere to treatment plans. For example, people with GI conditions may be less likely to take their medications or follow a special diet if they are stressed.
- Stress can increase the risk of relapse in people with GI conditions. For example, people with IBS may be more likely to experience symptoms after a stressful event.
- As mentioned above, stress increases the amount of acid an individual has in their stomach. This exacerbates symptoms and makes it difficult to find relief until stress levels decrease.
How to Manage Stress
As you can see, managing stress is essential to overcoming GI conditions and finding comfort when symptoms are present. Luckily, there are many ways to relieve stress quickly and effectively.
- Identify your stressors and find ways to cope with their challenges. If stress is caused by school or work, consider lightening your workload or taking a break from classes until you recover. If interpersonal relationships are the cause, consider setting relationship boundaries and limiting interactions with those individuals.
- Make lifestyle changes such as getting more sleep, eating a healthier diet (avoiding trigger foods), and getting regular physical activity.
- Learn relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, and acupuncture.
- Practice Self Care by spending time doing things you enjoy. Examples include getting a massage, watching a movie, taking a relaxing bath, and working on a hobby.
- Use cannabis to quickly relieve stress. Cannabis also improves many GI symptoms, making it a great solution for both physical and psychological symptom relief. Eating edibles and using topicals provide a safe way to consume the plant. Smoking is also effective but can irritate the throat and stomach. Additionally, the bacteria in dirty or shared paraphernalia can be dangerous to the immunosuppressed. (Here, you can learn how to clean your tools properly).
If stress is interfering with your GI disorder treatment or if you have co-existing mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, you should contact your doctor to discuss treatment options. Together, you and your doctor can find an effective solution. The solution may include therapy, medications, or medical leave from work and school.