How Emotions & Stress Affect the Gut

In a recent podcast episode, I talked to Dr. Emeran Mayer—world renowned gastroenterologist, neuroscientist and Distinguished Research Professor in the Departments of Medicine, Physiology and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA—about the gut-brain connection and how they influence each other. If you’ve ever felt nauseous during a stressful event, then you probably know why the gut is often referred to as our second brain.

The gut is a very complex organ that is responsible for much more than digestion. It has its own nervous system and the majority of our immune system is located in the gut. It also includes a big portion of our endocrine or hormonal system making it the most important regulatory system in our bodies.

I’ve talked a lot about my own gut issues on my podcast and understand how complex it can be. I tried several different things when it came to my diet, but it wasn’t until I started paying attention to my stress levels that I was able to get my gut health issues (mostly) under control. That being said, our gut health depends on so much more than what we eat – things like stress, anxiety and our emotions have a huge impact on gut function.

Stress causes physiological changes like increased heart rate and breathing, elevated blood pressure and muscle tension due to the release of the stress hormone cortisol. When the fight-or-flight response in the central nervous system is triggered, it can affect the digestive system as well by causing the esophagus to spasm or increase stomach acid production. Stress could also cause a decrease in blood flow and oxygen to the stomach, leading to nausea, cramping, constipation, inflammation or an imbalance of gut bacteria.

So, if you’re looking to improve your overall gut health, you may want to pay attention to your stress levels. Meditation, mindfulness, breath work and exercise are all good ways to help manage stress. To learn more about the gut-health connection, listen to the full podcast episode with Dr. Emeran Mayer here.