Stress and Overall Health

We all know that stress is bad for us. As a result of stress, we can lose sleep and even our hair. What we don’t think about too often is what stress actually does to our gastrointestinal tract (GIT)! In this article we’ll discuss the relationship between Stress and Gut Health.

Stress is an unavoidable condition that, at one point in time or another, affects us all. By definition stress is an “acute threat to the homeostasis (or balance) of an organism (or individual)”. Stress can be either psychological or physical but, most importantly it causes our bodies to go into “defence mode”.[1]


Stress and Gut Health

Our immune systems and GITs in particular are extremely sensitive to different stressors in our lives. In your gut, stress may alter:

  • secretions (including both digestive enzymes and stomach acid, and more.)
  • motility
    susceptibility to infection
    blood flow to the cells of the lining of the gut [2,3,4]
    bacteria (both good and bad). [5]
    the communication between your gut and your brain. [6,7]


Why Do We Need to Worry About Stress and Gut Health?

If stress can lead to all of these different changes in the gut, over time they can lead to a variety of disorders. Some of these include:

  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Diverticular Disease
  • Peptic Ulcer Disease (PUD)
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
  • Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
  • Food intolerances and possibly even food allergies. [8,9]


Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

GERD ( with the dreaded heartburn) is one of the most common gut disorders related to stress. One of the best proven ways to relieve recurrent heartburn is to reduce stress. [10]


If you are struggling with your gut, and want to take practical steps to get your digestion back on track today, book a consultation with Kim.


Peptic Ulcer Disease (PUD)

It is well documented that stressful life events can lead to the development of stomach ulcers. Stress can lead to increased acid secretions in your gut. by. Divorce, separation and death of a loved one have all been linked to increased risk for ulcers. Not only does stress contribute to PUD development, but more importantly it may impair the gut defences against the damage from the excess acid (in other words affecting your healing). [11]

It is worth noting two other important causes of PUD namely (1)Helicobacter pylori (Hp) infection and (2)chronic use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Before the discovery of Hp, however, stress was considered one of the most important risk factors for ulcer formation. [12]


Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD)

Exposure to stress is also a well-known risk factor for the development and exacerbation of IBD. There is some evidence implicating stress in both the causation and/or worsening of inflammation in the colon.[13] Not all studies support this, however, so larger population-based studies are needed. The exact mechanism is as yet unknown, but it is probably related to one or a combination of the alterations induced by stress.


Small Intestinal Bacteria Overgrowth (SIBO)

When we talk about gut bacteria, we refer to the variety that we all have and need in our gut as well as the bacteria to which we are exposed on a daily basis (which we don’t always want). There is evidence suggesting stress can lead to what we call “bacterial translocation” which, simply put, is the movement of bacteria from our gut to where we don’t necessarily want it (such as to lymph nodes, liver, spleen, kidneys or bloodstream). This movement may important in activating the immune system and as a result triggering inflammation in the colon. [14, 15] This effect can however be alleviated by probiotics!


Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

IBS is a common disorder with a prevalence of 10-20%, with females being 2x as likely to have IBS than males. IBS is a functional disease, and the diagnosis is based primarily on the exclusion of organic disease. Typically, IBS tends to have periods of flare-ups and then periods of remission. The most common symptoms of IBS include bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and constipation. [16, 17]

Important risk factors for IBS include genetic susceptibility and chronic stress, while the key triggers include psychosocial factors, and gut exposure to infections or chronic overuse of antibiotics. [18]

The diagnosis of IBS is based on the Rome III criteria [19]:
Recurrent abdominal pain or discomfort with ≥3 days per month in the last 3 months, associated with ≥2 of the following:

  • Improvement of symptoms with defecation
  • Onset associated with a change in stool frequency
  • Onset associated with a change in stool form (appearance).

Note:You need a doctor to diagnose you with IBS based on a full assessment – you cannot diagnose yourself based solely on the Rome III criteria.


Lessor Known Stressors

We are most aware of the emotional, relationship- and work-related stressors in life, however there are many others. You may not necessarily see the following as stressors in your life, but your body certainly interprets them as such:

  • lack of sufficient sleep (you need 7 – 9 hours per night)
  • excess alcohol use (for women >1 drink per day, for men >2 drinks per day)
  • recreational drug abuse
  • poor diet
  • physical injury or disease
  • excessive exercise or improper exercise
  • incorrect breathing (this is a very mild stress on the body, but a stressor nonetheless)
  • chronic exposure to environmental toxins
  • being overweight or obese

Not all of these on their own will cause GIT distress, but may do so when experienced in combinations


Final Points

Although this should be fairly clear, stress is especially bad for your gut health. GERD, IBD, IBS, and PUD are awful acronyms for awful conditions. Try to alleviate stress in your life as much as possible, including the lesser-known stressors mentioned above. 


If you are struggling with your digestion and want to know the practical steps that you can take today to get back on track, book a consultation with Kim here.



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