4 MIN READ | General

How Anxiety Affects Your Digestion

Peter Wallace

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There’s a close connection between the gut and the brain and this shouldn’t be taken lightly. Certain situations in life may make you feel nauseous. This is the reason as to why after a horrific ordeal, you’ll find some people gagging or throwing up. This has to explain why the very thought of eating may at times prompt the stomach into releasing digestive juices even before the food is ingested. This proves that there is an understandable connection between the gut and the brain. This type of connection goes both ways, the reason behind why a troubled gut may cause your head to throb.

Now that we have established the close link between the tummy and the brain, it now becomes easier to explain why right before a major presentation or when in an interview you’d feel nauseated. However, you need to be very careful not to relate certain symptoms to those of anxiety and stress. This is because some may be indicators of other underlying medical problems that you may want to check before any assumptions. These include recurring heartburns, loose stools and abdominal cramps. As common as they may be, your doctor may require you to take a gut microbiome test to ascertain if there are other underlying problems.

The effects of anxiety

It will be of importance to first and foremost discuss some of the major effects of anxiety on our anatomy. This will help us distinguish between those that are related to the digestive system from those that may have effects on other parts of the body.


From time to time, we all are faced with one form of anxiety to the other. Speaking of which, anxiety may present itself in different ways. Here is a list of the most common anxiety disorders.

  • Panic disorder
  • Generalised anxiety disorder
  • Agoraphobia
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Social phobia

The short term effects of anxiety may increase your heart rate as well as that of your breathing. This in return will increase the concentration of blood into your brain. Under normal circumstances, it’s not bad for the brain as it will help in supplying the vital nutrients and oxygen to the brain. However, when the anxiety is too intense, it may cause you to feel nauseous or lightheaded. This is not only devastating to your mental health, but to your physical health as well.

The effects of anxiety on your gut

As we had earlier established, anxiety and the digestive system are intertwined. This means that when either of the two is stressed – be it the brain or the stomach – the other will respond with stress. Luckily, there are various ways to tell if your digestive system is responding to anxiety situations. 

Developing acidic refluxes

Now, if you have recently noticed that all of a sudden your stomach is having some difficulty in digesting acidic foods, it may be due to some anxiety. This is especially true if you are undergoing some stressful moments in life. GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) is a digestive disorder that usually affects the lower esophageal sphincter. This is the ring between the stomach and the esophagus. The most common symptoms are heartburn, regurgitation, acid taste in the mouth, and acid indigestion. This is a condition that may also affect pregnant women. Below are some important facts about acid reflux.

  • It’s also known as heartburn or pyrosis
  • It happens when the undigested acids go back up the esophagus
  • It may cause burning pain in the chest area especially right after eating
  • Some lifestyle risk factors such as smoking and obesity may contribute to acid reflux
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) and other prescription drugs may help alleviate the problem as well as in trying to manage stress and anxiety

Regular stomach cramps

When experiencing high-functioning anxiety, you may at times experience stomach cramps that are non-periodic. These contractions are uncomfortable, especially when facing heightened anxiety. Now when this happens and you instantly associate them with anxiety or stress factors in your life, it’s advised that you take a break from the anxiety triggers.

Vomiting under stress

As a result of heightened anxiety moments, you may experience vomiting. Anxiety may affect norepinephrine, a naturally occurring chemical compound functioning as a neurotransmitter in the sympathetic nervous system. Lower levels of norepinephrine may make you euphoric while at higher levels you experience panic attacks. Now if you find yourself vomiting during these heightened anxiety moments, then, it may be as a result of affected levels of norepinephrine. However, if you are on meds, you may need to check in with your physician as it may be a side effect of the medication.

Constipation

If you haven’t changed your diet, are drinking plenty of water and eating foods rich in fibre and are still experiencing constipation, then it’s probable that you’re anxious or are going through some stressful situations. Intense anxiety may cause a poor supply of blood to flowing in the gut. This in return causes the bowels to slowly push the food down. As a result, you may experience constipation. If the condition persists, consult with your doctor or a registered dietitian. But the most important thing is to avoid any anxiety triggers.

Seeking help

Now with all the societal pressures and stresses that are so common in life, you may find it hard to avoid them. If this is the case with you and you’ve run out of the available options, it’s important to seek professional help. This is paramount in ensuring a healthier you.

  • Time and again, reach out to family and friends for company. This will provide you with closure and restore you to your right frame of mind.
  • If you have no one closer to you, support groups are also much recommended.
  • Visit your psychologist for guidance and counseling
  • If the gut symptoms persist, seek help from your doctor

You may also want to try out simple exercise routines to help you in coordinating your breathing and movements. This will help in managing your anxiety as well as help improve your digestive system function. But together with your physician, you may come up with effective strategies of managing anxiety and in improving your digestion.


Peter Wallace has been an advocate for mental health awareness for years. He holds a master’s degree in counselling from the University of Edinburgh.