Anxiety: The Gut's Effect on Mental Health
Ever wonder why you get butterflies in your stomach with something stressful, or maybe you feel like your stomach is tied in knots after an argument with someone, or maybe you end up in the bathroom for far too long when it has nothing to do with something you ate?
Stomach problems are one of the most common symptoms of stress and anxiety. Have you ever thought about that?
Hi, my name is Marcie Vaske and I'm a functional medicine nutritionist who specializes in gut health. I work to help people get rid of bothersome issues like diarrhea, constipation, gas and bloating. So if that resonates with you, I have linked our clinic here if you want to set up an appointment or maybe it's someone in your family that could use the help. I've also linked our free guide, which is all about five ways to improve your gut health.
How Anxiety affects your Gut Health?
So let's dig into today's topic, which is how anxiety affects your gut. You may have heard of a gut microbiome. It's a living environment of millions and billions of flora that live inside our intestinal tract and researchers have been busy for years studying and trying to identify the powerful connection between the gut and our brain.
Like the brain. The gut is full of nerves, and the gut actually contains the largest area of nerves outside of our brain. And what they have found is that the digestive tract in the brain actually shares some of the same nerve connections. So whether it's a single nerve-wracking event or maybe that chronic worry and stress over time, it can take a physical toll on your digestive system.
How do Anxiety and Worry really affect our Digestive System?
So the question is what's happening when you're feeling those butterflies or you have to run to the bathroom super fast? Well, what we have learned is that anxiety and worry can actually upset the delicate balance of our digestive system. And what happens is that some of those hormones and chemicals released by your body actually enter the digestive tract and they interfere with our digestion. They actually have a negative effect on your gut flora, which decreases antibody production, which results in chemical imbalances that can also cause a number of gastrointestinal conditions. So what may you be feeling if you have some anxiety or even chronic stress that's causing digestive issues for you.
We're gonna run through some of these, as we talk about it today, and let's see if any of these resonate with you or maybe someone you know. So in some people, anxiety, worry, and stress can actually slow down the digestive system, which would cause bloating, pain, trapped gas, and constipation. And while in others, it actually speeds up the digestive system. So that's where you're gonna find yourself running to the bathroom with possibly some diarrhea and some people even actually lose their appetite.
So if you are ever in a stressful situation, or you have had this chronic stress, you might feel you're kind of nauseous a lot and don't really understand where it's coming from because it's not being connected to any of the foods that you're consuming. And on the flip side of being nauseous, some people actually feel like they can't even get full. So you're constantly kind of nibbling or grazing or snacking. And that can increase indigestion on top of that. So if we are always snacking and your stomach isn't really feeling full, but you act, but it actually is, it can increase that indigestion for you. If you feel like food is just kind of sitting in your stomach and you haven't eaten for hours, that's another sign of indigestion for you.
There are also stomach cramps. So maybe you're running to the bathroom, but first, you've got all these stomach cramps or it's trapped gas that is in there. A lot of times when we are under stress like that, we become more bloated and we get that trapped gas.
And one of the things that also is peptic ulcers after typically that'll happen, if you're having lots of chronic stress in your life and it's been for, let's just even say a year, peptic ulcers can also occur. And so not only can chronic stress cause these symptoms, but the symptoms alone can cause the stress. So once you actually have, let's say indigestion, or you're constantly nauseous, or maybe you're constantly running to the bathroom or become more constipated than you've ever been, you start to get more anxious about the symptoms. And then that just kind of it's this big cycle that just continues.
An example of that would be, I have a client who started having a lot of stress and then ended up having lots of diarrhea and was anxious about actually being in social situations and didn't wanna leave. So then on top of having the symptoms, it increased more stress on not being able to be with friends and family.
If you struggle with indigestion, you're gonna start worrying about what foods you eat. You know, if you eat this food, is it gonna cause a symptom and then you're gonna be uncomfortable. So almost that fear of food begins to happen, which then increases your anxiety.
So one of the symptoms that I briefly touched on above was bloating and a lot of people struggle with bloating. And bloating, it just continues and continues. And it's not maybe necessarily connected to something that they're eating, but they just feel like...
Why am I always bloated?
I think one of the things that people don't realize is how impactful stress and anxiety can increase their bloating. Let's run through some reasons for how that happens.
If you're someone who has chronic bloating and you can't figure out what is going on, I think one thing is to reflect on, as we've been talking about, do you have chronic stress going on? Are you more of an anxious person? And bloating can be a very common symptom of anxiety. The main reason is that it's a result of the way you breathe.
So we change our breathing patterns. If you've ever noticed, when you're more anxious, you begin to shallow breathe. So you're not taking in those nice deep breaths and you tend to kind of breath up from like your diaphragm up instead of breathing a full belly breath.
And with that, when we are our breathing changes, that can create bloat in our bellies. So for those of you who don't really struggle with bloating, but maybe know somebody who does, you might be asking yourself...
What really is bloating?
Well, bloating is just kind of that swollen sensation or fullness in your lower abdominal area. It's air or trapped gas. And you can also feel it in your chest as well. But a lot of people, when they think of bloating, it's more in our lower abdominal. Bloating can also be presented as more burping or belching or even just passing gas and as I said, you could feel it in your chest. So you maybe feel like those chest pains and you might think that's just the anxiety, well, it is part of the anxiety, but it's part of how it's affecting your body.
So, as I mentioned, bloating can come because we change our pattern of breathing. And not only is it kind of those shallow breaths that you take but also if you're hyperventilating in a way.
Hyperventilation is when you take in more air than you need, when you get all that extra air in there, it gets trapped in our abdominal. And when you change your breathing pattern, you can also end up swallowing air, which is then gonna blow your stomach and lead to a lot more, burping, belching, or just that stomach pressure that you feel and anxiety, or that chronic stress also affects just your digestion in general, which means that it can shut down part of the brain that handles digesting food. Because as I mentioned, our brain and our gut use and are connected by many similar same nerves and the stress actually puts a lot of pressure on the stomach and abdomen, then upsets our hormones and our neurotransmitter balance in our guts.
So where we need certain hormones and certain neurotransmitters to have proper digestion, it disrupts that balance and that creates an environment where foods actually, that would be normally digested easily. Just something that you would eat every day and have no problem with it, upsets that environment. As I said, it becomes digested more poorly, which then, of course, leads to more gas and bloating for you.
So how can we stop the bloating?
Let's say we have the anxiety, we have the chronic stress going on, but once the air gets in the system, how can we kind of get that out so you can feel better?
One such way would be to recognize the way that you're breathing. So if you're kind of taking those shallow breaths or you're taking more air in than you need, try to sit down and calm yourself, and really listen to your breath. Take a deep breath in a deep breath out.
What is Box Breathing?
There's a form of breathing mechanism or technique called box breathing, where you breathe in for four counts, and then you breathe out for four counts that helps to recalibrate some of those nerves and calm them down.
One such nerve is the vagus nerve, which is directly connected from our brain to our guide. And that can just naturally give you back into a better rhythm. We can put in the technique of some different breathing and that can help at the moment. But what you really wanna start looking at is, and reflecting on making changes in your life to reduce the stress and the anxiety. And I know we are not gonna get rid of stress for sure in our life is just part of it, but we need to learn how stress is affecting us. So when you feel that stress coming up how can you calm yourself as soon as possible? So you don't have the digestive upset that might occur as you're going through it. And so let's talk about and think about what are some ways that work best for you or what may work best.
One way we can do this is by just taking short breaks and breathe. Just like I said, try to calm the body down using your breath. And this can really be helpful. Maybe it's every couple of hours you're getting up away from your desk or you're getting away from the stressful environment. If you can, just relax, breathe, get away, and walk a little bit and that will help throughout the day. You'll be surprised at how impactful that really can be. Or maybe we're just filling up our life with too many yeses. You have to take care of yourself, right?
You have to do lots of self-care so that you can take care of others. And if we're constantly saying yes to everybody else or see different projects at work or whatever, it might be, take note of that. And where can you say no? Where can you give yourself more time? So that, that stress that is kind of cluttering your life can be dissipated.
Another really good one is increasing your exercise or movement, or maybe doing some yoga, you know, moving the body. That's a natural stress reliever. It doesn't even have to be a formal exercise. I mean, you could just get up and walk. You could go for a 10-minute walk. It doesn't have to be this, one-hour thing that you're doing.
Maybe you'd like to try some yoga. Yoga can be extremely restorable for our bodies. It can help to calm all of our nerves and it's actually really relaxing, and it teaches you how to breathe and listen to your breath.
Quit stressing about things you can't control
And one of the last things is, you know, let's try not to stress over the things that we can't control. I know easier said than done, and we worry about stuff. But if you can reflect and recognize how maybe some of those things are creating more stress in your life by trying to control it all, you can, gradually let go of some of it that first of all is going to help you in your daily life but if you're struggling with chronic digestive issues that maybe aren't related to food all the time it will help your whole physical body feel better.
So I hope this helped shed some light on how anxiety or that chronic stress can be impactful on your digestive system. And as you're moving through helping to restore good gut health, keep in mind what our mind and gut and that connection that they have and how strong that is. I think it's important to know that while you make big changes and maybe the foods that you eat or the way you structure your daily eating habits, you might do beautiful on those. But if you have this overarching stress that's creating more anxiety for you, some of those digestive issues will just stick around.
So hopefully this was helpful and if you need more help and are interested, make an appointment and we can walk through the steps together.
Watch How Marcie explained the impact of Anxiety on your Gut health.