Stress Effects On The Body
The gut has hundreds of millions of neurons, which can function fairly independently and are in constant communication with the brain, explaining the ability to feel “butterflies” in the stomach. Stress can affect this brain-gut communication and may trigger pain, bloating and other gut discomforts to be felt more easily. The gut is also inhabited by millions of bacteria, which can influence its health and the brain’s health, which can impact the ability to think and affect emotions. Stress is associated with changes in gut bacteria, which in turn can influence mood. Thus, the gut’s nerves and bacteria strongly influence the brain and vice versa.
Early life stress can change the development of the nervous system as well as how the body reacts to stress. These changes can increase the risk of later gut diseases or dysfunction.
When stressed, individuals may eat much more or much less than usual. More or different foods, or an increase in the use of alcohol or tobacco, can result in heartburn or acid reflux. Stress or exhaustion can also increase the severity of regularly occurring heartburn pain. A rare case of spasms in the esophagus can be set off by intense stress and can be easily mistaken for a heart attack. Stress also may make swallowing foods difficult or increase the amount of air that is swallowed, which increases burping, gassiness, and bloating.
Stress may make pain, bloating, nausea and other stomach discomfort felt more easily. Vomiting may occur if the stress is severe enough. Furthermore, stress may cause an unnecessary increase or decrease in appetite. Unhealthy diets may in turn deteriorate one’s mood.
Contrary to popular belief, stress does not increase acid production in the stomach, nor causes stomach ulcers. The latter is actually caused by a bacterial infection. When stressed, the ulcers may be more bothersome.
Stress can also make pain, bloating or discomfort felt more easily in the bowels. It can affect how quickly food moves through the body which can cause either diarrhea or constipation. Furthermore, stress can induce muscle spasms in the bowel which can be painful.
Stress can affect digestion, and what nutrients the intestines absorb. Gas production related to nutrient absorption may increase. The intestines have a tight barrier to protect the body from (most) food-related bacteria. Stress can make the intestinal barrier weaker and allow gut bacteria to enter the body. Although most of these bacteria are easily taken care of by the immune system and do not make us sick, the constant low need for inflammatory action can lead to chronic mild symptoms.
Stress especially affects people with chronic bowel disorders, such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease or Irritable Bowel Syndrome. This may be due to the gut nerves being more sensitive, changes in gut microbiota, changes in how quickly food moves through the gut, and/or changes in gut immune responses.
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Orange County Health & Psychology Associates, Inc.
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Irvine, CA 92618