Can Anxiety Cause Stomach Problems? 9 Ways It Can Impact Your Gut, According To Experts
When you have anxiety, you probably have to deal with mental symptoms of the issue like excessive worrying or insomnia. But what you might not realize is that there is a pretty strong connection between anxiety and your gut health, so if your mental health isn't at its best, your body might be experiencing some not-so-great physical symptoms too, according to experts.
"Much of how we feel, including mood, anxiety, depression, and even satiety is controlled from the gut versus the brain," Amanda Archibald, RD, a registered dietician who specializes in nutrition biochemistry and founder of The Genomic Kitchen, tells Bustle. "The role of the gut in mental health can be tracked to bacteria in our gut, often referred to as the microbiome," she says. These bacteria perform a variety of essential roles that include nutrient production, but can also play a role in your mental health, so fueling yourself with delicious nutrient-dense foods can potentially boost your mood.
If you're experiencing anxiety-related gut issues, reaching out to a mental health professional to address what's happening in your mind is important. But adding some delicious foods into your meals can also help your stomach feel better. Fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha, are beneficial for your gut bacteria, Archibald says. Fiber-rich foods like bananas, garlic, and artichokes can also support your gut health.
Here are some surprising ways that anxiety can manifest in your gut, according to experts.
1. Stomach Pain
Stomach pains or cramps are one of the most commonly manifested symptoms of anxiety in the gut, Dr. Erica Rojas, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist in private practice specializing in stressors and founder of Broadway Psychological Associates, tells Bustle. "Most experience this issue during the onset of anxiety (for example, right before a public speaking event)," she says. If you have long-term anxiety, though, you could also experience stomach cramping. Mindful exercises can be a powerful way to address this pain. "Begin with simply closing your eyes, taking deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth, and focusing on alleviating the pain or tension in the area that hurts most," Rojas says. "Visualization of the pain (often as a tight knot in the stomach being alleviated or unwound) is helpful as well."
2. Gastrointestinal Problems
Gastrointestinal medical problems, like irritable bowel syndrome, can develop as a result of anxiety. In fact, IBS is arguably the most common form of GI difficulty directly related to anxiety, Rojas says. Having IBS can mean experiencing a number of symptoms, such as gas, abdominal pain, bloating, and constipation, she says. In addition to seeking treatment for your mental health, staying active can be an effective way to manage the condition. Look for fun ways to get your blood pumping like chasing your pup around the dog park or going roller blading with a group of friends.
"Reflux can be worsened with anxiety because stress and anxiety lower stomach acid production, which makes digesting food more difficult, and so it can sit longer in the stomach than it should," Alicia Galvin, MEd, RD, LD, CLT, IFNCP, a registered dietitian in private practice specializing in gastrointestinal health and autoimmunity, tells Bustle. Working with your doctor to address your physical symptoms is important, but you can also implement ways to improve your mental health. In addition to seeing a therapist, set aside time each day to do a self-care activity that you've found is really helpful for you, like listening to calming music or cuddling with your partner.
If you're someone who gets a period, you might experience cramping and diarrhea while you're menstruating. But if you experience these signs throughout the month, it could be related to your anxiety levels. "This is because the brain has a direct communication line to the stomach via a complex nerve network, and in times of increased stress or nervousness, chemical signals are sent to the gut," Galvin says. These chemicals can activate motility or muscular contractions in some people and cause diarrhea and cramping. Talk to your doctor about ways to improve your gut health (and your mental health) so that you don't have to put up with this uncomfortable symptom.
While anxiety might cause diarrhea for some folks, for others, it can have the opposite effect. "For some people, anxiety has more of an impact on something called the migrating motor complex, which is your GI tract’s sweeping system between meals to clear debris in a downward fashion," Galvin says. "This system shuts down when stressed or anxious, because the brain is telling the body, 'We don’t need to worry about digestion right now — we are under stress!'" Be sure to drink plenty of water and eat fibrous foods, but if the constipation persists, check in with your doctor for more specialized help.
After you eat a delicious meal, you might feel discomfort in your stomach. If you have untreated anxiety, these two issues might actually be related, because the mental health problem can manifest in your gut as indigestion. "[This] happens when you feel so stressed your body goes into a fight-or-flight state," Dr. Nikola Djordjevic, MD, a board-certified family physician and medical advisor for LoudCloudHealth, tells Bustle. "This state provokes the central nervous system, causing your esophagus to spasm increasing the actin in your stomach and leading to indigestion," he says. Make sure that you're chewing your food thoroughly and not eating too rapidly, but if you continue to experience indigestion, get in touch with your doctor.
7. Loss Of Appetite
When you're feeling especially stressed, you might love cooking up your mom's special macaroni and cheese recipe or picking up your favorite chocolatey treat from a nearby bakery. Or maybe none of your favorite foods sound good all of a sudden. Appetite shifts can be related to anxiety, Djordjevic says. "When we’re stressed our body can produce more cortisol," he says. "Cortisol boosts stomach acid production which further speeds up digestion and leads to a sensation of fullness." This means that when you're anxious, you might not feel as hungry as you usually are. If this is only a symptom you notice the morning before a big presentation, it's probably not going to disrupt your life in a major way. But if your loss of appetite persists for more than a few days, that's definitely something you want to check with your doctor about.
8. Worse Digestion
Did you know that eating blueberries when you're totally at peace versus eating blueberries when you're very anxious could change how your body processes the fruit? "Stress hormones interfere with digestion and lead to a chemical imbalance and poor nutrient absorption," Danielle Schaub, RD, a registered dietitian and culinary and nutrition manager at Territory Foods, tells Bustle. "Stress and depression also affect the movement and contraction of the gut, slowing it down or speeding it up," she says. Work with a mental health expert to find stress-management techniques that work for you so that you get all of the wonderful nutrients in the foods you're enjoying.
Flatulence is something that everyone experiences, so it's definitely not something to be ashamed about. But sometimes you might feel like gassiness is interfering with your daily life. Anxiety could actually cause this symptom, Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN, a registered dietician and advisory board member for Smart Healthy Living, tells Bustle. "While you may feel gassy during bouts of anxiety, you can try eliminating foods that are high in FODMAPs," she says. "FODMAPs are found in certain foods and they may be more gas-producing than others." Talk to your doctor about whether FODMAPs might be causing you gut problems, in addition to seeking treatment for your anxiety.
If you're struggling with anxiety or any of these uncomfortable gut issues, don't feel like you have to suffer through them. Talk to your doctor and your therapist about how you can feel better.