You've heard the sayings all your life:”a knot in your stomach,” “a gut feeling,” “butterflies in your stomach,” or that something was “gut wrenching.” There’s a solid reason why we use these expressions so often — the gastrointestinal tract is incredibly sensitive to emotion. Feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, elation are all known to trigger symptoms in the digestive system.
How Are They Connected?
The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) connects your brain to your stomach through a pathway comprised of over 100 million nerves — more than are in your spinal cord. Because of its complexity, the ENS has been nicknamed our “second brain.” The nervous systems controlling our “gut-brain” and our “big brain” share many of the same neurotransmitters. This facilitates communication between the two.
Referred to as the brain-gut axis, this bi-directional pathway keeps the brain and the gut in constant contact with each other, sending signals when either your brain or your stomach is upset. This means that emotional distress can upset your digestive system and an upset digestive system can cause emotional distress.
How Do Emotions Come Into Play?
The connection between our brains and our digestive systems illustrates why we feel stress and strong emotions in our gut. Experiencing butterflies before public speaking or diarrhea before an exam is the result of stress being communicated to the digestive system via the ENS.
To be a little more precise, it all comes down to “fight or flight.” When something causes you a great amount of stress, it triggers the fight-or-flight response in the brain. One component of fight-or-flight's physiological response — an evolutionary trick designed to protect you from harm — is to restrict the secretion of stomach fluids while diverting blood flow from the stomach to your lungs and muscles. This, combined with the stress hormones being released by the adrenal glands, produces a physical reaction meant to prepare the body to fight or flee danger. Unfortunately, it also leads to some serious stomach upset.
Because of the brain's connection to the stomach — and the stomach's part in digestion — stress can irritate the entire digestive system. Stress (and the intense emotions caused by it) can bring on stomach aches, diarrhea, constipation, gas, and vomiting.
How Can We Ease Symptoms?
Mental health disorders (which can have a marked effect on the gut), as well as diseases that affect the digestive system (such as colitis and gastritis), are often aggravated by stress. When emotional turmoil is abated, either through the use of antidepressants and/or psychological treatments, these disorders — as well as the effects they have on the digestive system — are greatly improved. The connection between emotions and physical health has now become so clear that universities have begun training doctors and psychologists to address the behavioral issues that contribute to chronic health conditions.
The scientific advancements made in the past decade have greatly improved the medical community’s understanding of how the brain and the gut are connected — as well as how gut health can be improved through mind-body medicine. If you are suffering from digestive issues or stomach pain, look for other common symptoms of stress. Discuss your symptoms with your doctor and together you can come up with healthy coping strategies to help you manage the stressors in your life.
Liz Greene is a dog loving, beard envying, pop culture geek from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can catch up with her latest misadventures on Instant Lo or follow her on Twitter@LizVGreene.