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The Mind-Gut Connection: How Your Emotions Affect Your Stomach

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Mind Gut Connection

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.

But why?

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.

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Mind Gut Connection



  1. Thank you Liz for this great article!

    The gut-brain axis is one of the miracles of the human body. This connection has always intrigued me!

    I’d like to add that probiotics in our gut play a vital role in it. Goes to show again how important they are for our physical & mental health! Supplementing with certain probiotic strains can help with depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders.

    Thanks again and keep up the amazing work!

  2. Thanks a lot for your nice content. My husband is suffering from IBS for 10 years. And remembered it to be started since he were in a stressful period of life. And still now when he is in tensed or mentally depressed, the bowel system deteriorates. So clearly the mental condition and health Gut is connected.

  3. Now I understand how it was connected when I was stressed. This is so resourceful! I love your writing Tamara, I’m looking forward to more of your blog. I hope to read sooner or later of your new post, Cheers!

  4. Fight or flight, you are so right, this is the typical response in the case of any stress or pressure and mostly I choose the former and you have really enlightened me by so clearly unraveling the relationship between emotions and the gut

  5. You are so right! Whenever there is a stressful situation, we feel uncomfortable in our stomach, even experience diarrhea. I remember the feeling right before a crucial exam or even when sought by a higher authority in school or work for an explanation. So there is an obvious connect between the two vital parts of our body. How to overcome is the obvious question and the cure has to be found by looking within ourselves. Mindfulness could be a great help.

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