How Does Anxiety Affect Our Digestive Health?


If you have ever suffered from anxiety, you’ll know very well how it can make you feel mentally and emotionally. However, what you will also be familiar with is how it affects your physical body, particularly your digestive system.

Anxiety can impact our appetite, metabolism, and bowel movements and cause GI disturbances resulting in cramps or abdominal pain. This is something that Dr. Lynn Winsten comes across frequently in her Berkeley, CA practice.

So how exactly does anxiety affect our digestion, and what can we do to take care of our mental and digestive health?

The gut-brain connection

Our digestive system is often referred to as our second brain because of the close connection between the two organs. Many people will experience “butterflies” in their belly or the sensation that their stomach is tied in knots when thinking anxious thoughts.

This is because millions of nerves and neurons run between your stomach and brain via your nervous system. So, for example, when you think about eating, your abdominal organs prepare to receive food before you even eat.

This relates to anxiety because when your brain is receiving troubling thoughts, it can send signals to your GI tract, causing disturbances there. This is why whenever you think about a meeting or interview you are worried about, you feel unease in your stomach and may lose your appetite.

an anxious woman wondering about her digestive healthThe vagus nerve

The Vagus nerve is one of the most significant nerves in your nervous system that connects your digestive system and brain and sends signals back and forth. Stress can inhibit the signals being sent through the vagus nerve and cause various gastrointestinal problems.

Interestingly, existing digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s disease can reduce the function of the vagus nerve, slowing down the signals between the brain and GI tract.

Therefore, the vagus nerve plays a crucial role in our gut-brain connection. Increasing our vagal tone could positively impact our stress and anxiety levels and digestive health.

Neurotransmitters and microbes

Our digestive system produces many of the same neurotransmitters that our brain creates, such as Serotonin. This stabilizes our mood, promotes feelings of happiness, and regulates our body clocks. Another neurotransmitter produced in both the stomach and brain is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which can help to reduce fear and anxiety and promote a calming sensation.

When we feel stressed or anxious, the signals that our brains send to our abdominal organs can reduce or suppress the production of GABA, Serotonin, and other crucial chemicals. This creates a chemical imbalance in our digestive system that can affect the microorganisms living in the stomach.

These microbes play an essential role in the digestion process. The imbalance caused by anxiety can lead to gastrointestinal conditions such as indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, or loss of appetite.

Cortisol – the stress hormone

Another common way that stress and anxiety can affect our digestive health is due to the increase of the hormone cortisol. Whenever we feel stress, fear, or worry, our adrenal glands release cortisol as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism of our nervous system. Increased cortisol levels quicken our breathing and increase our heart rate in preparation to fight or run away from the stressor.

When our nervous system is in this “fight or flight mode,” our digestive process suppresses to allow our body to focus on the threat at hand. Cortisol helps move blood to the brain, large muscles, and limbs rather than the digestive tract.

The problem is, if our stress and anxiety remain, our nervous system stays out of balance. Then the consistent high cortisol levels negatively impact our metabolism, and digestive issues arise.

This could appear in the form of constipation, gas, or bloating if the digestive system is unable to get rid of waste. Alternatively, it could result in diarrhea if the onset of stress causes food to move too quickly through the digestive tract.

Anxiety and eating habits

Lastly, the emotional strain that anxiety has on us can alter our food choices and eating habits. For example, we may resort to comfort eating, binging on foods high in carbohydrates and fats to make ourselves feel better. Alternatively, our worry might suppress our appetite and lead us to skip meals. Both of these extremes can easily disturb the balance in your digestive system and lead to gastrointestinal issues.

How anxiety therapy can help you

It’s important to remember that there is no quick fix for anxiety. Instead, it should be addressed with a professional, such as Berkeley, CA psychologist and therapist Lynn Winsten.

Exposure therapy is helpful for patients whose anxiety stems from PTSD or phobias. Dr. Winsten utilizes acceptance and mindfulness strategies to change negative behaviors.

During your first sessions, Dr. Lynn Winsten will establish the type of therapy that will best help by understanding the cause of your distress. You may not notice an immediate difference in how you feel after your first session, but that is ok. Anxiety therapy deals with the root of the problem rather than treating the symptoms. With the knowledge and support of Dr. Lynn Winsten, over time, you will be able to eliminate your stress and anxiety for good.

Other ways to take care of your digestive system (and your mind)

Once you start anxiety therapy at Dr. Lynn Winsten Berkeley, CA, you can make some additional changes in your daily life. Here are a couple of recommendations that can help you relieve your digestive problems and support your journey to a healthier and happier life.

Take probiotics and eat fermented foods

Taking probiotics can increase GABA production in the stomach that can aid in digestion, and reduce anxiety. Fermented foods are also rich in probiotics and can help to increase GABA levels. Therefore try adding sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, miso, and fermented yogurt and milks like kefir to your diet.

Meditation and breathing exercises

When we are in a constant state of stress and anxiety, our bodies get stuck in the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight mode. Therefore, we must switch from this state into the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest and digest state. This decreases our breathing and heart rate and kicks our digestion back into action, reducing any GI issues we may be experiencing.

One of the best ways to regulate your nervous system is through meditation and breathing exercises, which focus on slowing the breath and relaxing the body. For example, 20 minutes of breathing in for a count of four and pausing for two ,and then out for a count of eight, pausing for two, and repeating this pattern can help switch your nervous system from fight or flight to rest and digest.

If you need support with your anxious thoughts and digestive issues and are based in Berkeley, CA, schedule a consultation with Dr. Lynn Winsten today.