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Digestive Problems and the Effects of Anxiety

Faiq Shaikh, M.D.
Digestive Problems and the Effects of Anxiety

Anxiety causes a lot of different symptoms. Anxiety causes headaches, it causes muscle pain - it even causes cold feet. But not everyone experiences all of those symptoms, because every individual person's anxiety is different.

Yet one area of the body where symptoms always seem to develop is the stomach, because digestive problems are extremely common in those with anxiety. In this article, we'll explore some of the most common digestive problems and explain some of the strategies that you can use to control them.

How Anxiety Creates Digestive Issues

Digestive issues are a prominent part of living with anxiety. In fact, it can be so normal that many people don't even realize that anxiety is affecting the way they digest food. Some issues - like panic disorder - can actually be made worse because of digestion issues. 

It's nearly impossible to come up with a complete list of all of the ways digestion is affected by anxiety, but the following are just a few examples of how stress and anxiety can affect your digestive tract:

Overwhelmed Nervous System

The changes that affect digestion don't start in your stomach. They actually start in your brain.

The human brain has a limited amount of resources. When you experience anxiety, what you're actually experiencing is an activation of the "fight or flight" response, which is designed to make it easier for you to escape danger.

The fight or flight response takes up a lot of your brain's resources, so to compensate it slows down parts of your brain that aren't as necessary, such as the muscles involved in digestion. Normally, since the fight-or-flight response is only supposed to be temporary, you would never notice that your digestion was changed. But because anxiety is a constant, long term, chronic issue, you're left with a digestive tract that is not running correctly.

That can cause several different issues, but of course it often leads to constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, and traditional indigestion.

Neurotransmitter Changes

Similarly, the same neurotransmitters in your brain that are altered and affect your mood, like serotonin, also play a role in sending signals to the gut. While low serotonin can cause anxiety, anxiety can also cause low serotonin, and that means that some of the messengers that are normally traveling into your body are possibly being created at a lower rate, leading to digestion issues.

Adrenaline Release

Another issue relates to adrenaline. During the fight or flight response, your body creates massive amounts of adrenaline to give your body extra energy.

In order to create that energy, adrenaline needs to take it from "sugar storage" form known as glycogen. While adrenaline does this, your body starts essentially processing nutrients at rates that aren't ideal. It changes how your body processes nutrients as well and could conceivably affect your digestive health.

Bacterial Growth/Immune System

Inside of your intestine are bacteria. These bacteria are both good and bad. Most bacteria are "good bacteria," and they are designed to help you digest food and improve your overall health.

But these bacteria need to be in the right balance. Good bacteria are constantly battling against bad bacteria, and in some cases bad bacteria can win. Furthermore, good bacteria is only "good" when it's kept in check by other good bacteria. If something happens to cause any type of bacterial overgrowth, it can hurt the strength of your stomach.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear but likely have to do with the way anxiety weakens the immune system, bacterial balance inside of the intestines seems to be affected by stress. Those that experience long term anxiety may have improperly balanced bacteria that is not digesting food correctly and ultimately causing digestion problems.

Sleep Issues

Sometimes the issue isn't quite so complicated. One common problem that makes digestion worse is a lack of sleep. Sleep is an absolutely crucial part of digestion. It ensures that the body is at its peak energy level, so that food passes through at the right pace and your hormones and enzymes are recharged.

Anxiety can and does often make it harder to sleep. If you're constantly sleep deprived, then you're creating physical stresses that ultimately contribute to an increase in digestive problems.

Stomach Acids

Anxiety has also been linked to an increase in stomach acids. The effects of this are not entirely clear, but it is likely that the increase in stomach acids creates problems digesting food, and may even affect food once it goes into the intestines as a result of the higher acid content.

How Digestion Problems Can Create Anxiety

Unfortunately, in a lot of cases digestion issues can also contribute to further anxiety. Indigestion can create pain and discomfort - two issues that are known to increase anxiety symptoms. Gas can lead to chest pains, and if you suffer from anxiety attacks, chest pains can often trigger them.

Any type of long term discomfort has the potential to create or increase anxiety, and so if your anxiety is causing indigestion and poor nutritional balance, there is a strong chance that the stress that poor digestion has on your body has long term repercussions.

How to Improve Anxiety Digestion

Much of your digestive issues are the result of problems that you simply cannot control if you have anxiety. Anxiety will always affect digestion on a cellular and chemical level, turning down your brain in favor of your anxiety symptoms. So if you still suffer from anxiety, you're likely going to suffer from indigestion. But there are a few tips that can help:

Overall, these are just some of the things you can do to try to make sure that your digestive health improves. But you'll still need to control your overall anxiety if you really want to see a difference.

Article Resources
  1. Jarrett, Monica, et al. Sleep disturbance influences gastrointestinal symptoms in women with irritable bowel syndrome. Digestive diseases and sciences 45.5 (2000): 952-959.
  2. Addolorato, Giovanni, et al. Anxiety and depression: a common feature of health care seeking patients with irritable bowel syndrome and food allergy.Hepato-gastroenterology 45.23 (1998): 1559.
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