The impact of stress on your gut

Published: August, 2019

Given how closely the gut and brain interact, it might seem obvious that the pair often influence each other. Some people feel nauseated before giving a presentation; others feel intestinal pain during times of stress. In any case, emotional and psychosocial factors play a role in functional gastrointestinal disorders.

Treating the whole body

Stress-related symptoms felt in the gastrointestinal tract vary greatly from one person to the next, and treatment can vary as well. For example, one person with gastroesophageal reflux disease might have an occasional, mild burning sensation in the chest, while another experiences excruciating discomfort night after night. As the severity of symptoms varies, so should the therapies, medications, self-help strategies, or even surgeries used to relieve them.

Many people have mild symptoms that respond quickly to changes in diet or medications. If your symptoms do not improve, your clinician may ask you more questions about your medical history and perform some diagnostic tests to rule out an underlying cause. For some people, symptoms improve as soon as a serious diagnosis, like cancer, has been ruled out. Your doctor may also recommend symptom-specific medications.

But sometimes these treatments are not enough. As symptoms become more severe, so does the likelihood that you are experiencing some sort of psychological distress.

Often, people with moderate to severe symptoms, particularly those whose symptoms arise from stressful circumstances, can benefit from mind directed therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques. Some people are reluctant to accept the role of psycho-social factors in their illness. But it's important to know that emotions cause genuine chemical and physical responses in the body that can result in pain and discomfort.

Behavioral therapy and stress reduction treatments help manage pain and improve other symptoms in ways that are different from how drugs act. The goal of all therapies is to reduce anxiety, encourage healthy behaviors, and help people cope with the pain and discomfort of their condition.

For more on the connection between brain health and gut health, read The Sensitive Gut, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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