The Gut-Brain Connection

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The gut-brain connection can link anxiety to stomach problems and vice versa. Have you ever had a “gut-wrenching” experience from something apprehensive, stressful or fearful?? Do certain situations make you “feel nauseous” or sick to your stomach? Have you ever felt “butterflies” in your stomach from something scary or nerve-wracking? We use these varied expressions for a reason. The gastrointestinal tract is extremely sensitive to emotion. Anxiety, anger, sadness, elation — all of these feelings (and many others) can trigger symptoms in the gut.

The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines or otherwise known as the “gut”. For example, the thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before the food actually gets there. This connection can go both ways. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected to one another.

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This is especially true in cases where a person experiences gastrointestinal upset with no obvious physical cause. For such functional GI disorders, it is difficult to try to heal a distressed gut without considering the role of stress and emotion.

Gut health and anxiety

Given how closely the gut and brain interact with each other, it becomes easier to understand why you might feel nauseated before giving an oral exam or feel intestinal pain during times of stress and fear.

That doesn’t mean, however, that functional gastrointestinal conditions are imagined or “all in your head.” Psychology or “In the Mind” combines with physical factors to cause pain and other bowel symptoms.  Psychology combines with physical factors to cause pain and other bowel symptoms. Outside social factors influence the actual physical presence of the gut, as well as many other symptoms. In other words, stress (or depression or other psychological factors) can affect the movement and the contractions of the GI tract,  and make inflammation worse, or perhaps even make you more susceptible to infection and disease.

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In addition,  there is research that suggests that some people with  GI disorders perceive pain more acutely and severely than other people do because their brains are more responsive to pain signals from the GI tract. Stress can actually make the existing pain seem even worse.

Based on these observations and ideas, you might expect that at least some patients with GI conditions might improve with therapy to reduce stress or treat anxiety or depression. And sure enough, a review of 13 studies showed that patients who tried psychologically based approaches had greater improvement in their digestive symptoms compared with patients who received only conventional medical treatment.

Gut-brain connection, anxiety and digestion

Are your stomach or intestinal problems — such as heartburn, abdominal cramps, or loose stools — related to stress? Watch for these other common symptoms of stress and discuss them with your doctor. Together you can come up with strategies to help you deal with the stressors in your life, and also ease your digestive discomforts.

Physical symptoms

  • Stiff or tense muscles, especially in the neck and shoulders
  • Headaches
  • Sleep problems
  • Shakiness or tremors
  • The recent loss of interest in sex
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Restlessness

Behavioral symptoms

  • Procrastination
  • Grinding teeth
  • Difficulty completing work assignments
  • Changes in the amount of alcohol or food you consume
  • Taking up smoking, or smoking more than usual
  • Increased desire to be with or withdraw from others
  • Rumination (frequent talking or brooding about stressful situations)

Emotional symptoms

  • Crying
  • An overwhelming sense of tension or pressure
  • Trouble relaxing
  • Nervousness
  • Quick temper
  • Depression
  • Poor concentration
  • Trouble remembering things
  • Loss of sense of humor
  • Indecisiveness

 

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