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How Stress Affects Gut Health


Colleen Francioli is a Certified Nutritional Consultant and founder of FODMAP Life who struggled with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) symptoms for years until she found relief through diet and lifestyle changes. Through her own personal journey and after years of counseling others, Colleen has come to understand the important relationship between stress and gut health, especially for those with IBS. Here she explains the stress gut health connection and gives tips on how to reduce stress and improve gut health.

If you’ve ever started a new job, given a speech or, waited at the starting line of a race, then you may have experienced the feeling of “butterflies” in your stomach, or feeling “sick to your stomach.” That’s because your gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Whether we are excited, scared, happy, or angry, all of these emotions in our brain can trigger symptoms in the gut. We know that the brain and digestive system are interconnected; meaning what happens in our brain can lead to GI symptoms, and vice versa.

And certain gastrointestinal diseases, such as IBS are referred to as gut-brain disorders specifically because of this interrelationship between stress and intestinal symptoms. Many sufferers of IBS also have difficulties with depression, anxiety, mood and sleep. In fact, researchers have found that stress, depression, anxiety or other psychological factors can influence the actual physiology of the gut and affect movement and contractions involved in digestion, making intestinal symptoms worse.

Whether you suffer from IBS or any other regular gastrointestinal symptoms, it’s important to understand how stress can play a role in how you feel. And more importantly, we can all work to incorporate stress-reducing techniques into our daily lives. We will be benefiting both our emotional well-being and our gut health!

Understanding what stress does to our body

So where does stress begin? You might’ve guessed it: the brain. Our brain is the central organ of the stress response. In the brain, we have regions such as the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex and amygdala, which respond to acute and chronic stress. The brain determines what is stressful, and it directs our behavioral and physiological responses to potential and actual stressors.

Two hormones, glucocorticoids and catecholamines, are responsible for the body’s stress response, which is often referred to as “fight or flight.” This was essentially created for humans to respond to stressful situations like a bear in your path – time to run! These days, most humans aren’t dealing with direct physical threats like lions, tigers or bears. But day to day activities such as waiting in traffic, paying bills, caring for a loved one, or dealing with health symptoms such as IBS or other GI disorders or diseases, can trigger the same activation of our fight or flight system. Even though our physical survival isn’t being threatened, our brains (and bodies) don’t know the difference.

Unfortunately, as a result of our stressed out world, many of us are kicking this “fight or flight” stress response into gear every day and sometimes even several times per day.

The Gut-Brain Connection

When our bodies deal with these stressful situations, regardless of what they are, chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream. These patterns of nerve cell firing and chemical release cause our body to undergo a series of very dramatic changes, which can have a direct impact on our digestive system. As our brain and bodies deal with a stressful situation, blood is propelled away from our digestive tract and directed to our muscles and limbs. This slows down digestion, which can trigger the body to react with constipation, diarrhea or bloating.

This gut-brain connection is particularly important when it comes to stress and GI disorders such as IBS. An unhealthy intestine can send signals to the brain, causing the brain to go into its stress response mode which can lead to further gastrointestinal problems. Or, when we are anxious or stressed, our brains can send stress signals to the gut, leading to intestinal issues. This becomes a vicious cycle, as gastrointestinal symptoms can be the cause of or the result of anxiety, stress, or depression.

Tips on how to reduce stress

Learning how to deal with daily stresses is crucial to avoiding the repeated negative and harmful cycle of stress hormones flowing through our bodies. If stress seems to be ruling your life and causing symptoms of IBS or other gut issues, there are ways you can improve your health! Try these tips to improve both your physical and mental health:

Watch Your Diet:

If your diet is full of sugar, unhealthy fats and processed foods, you’re not doing your gut or brain any good! For those suffering from IBS, I recommend following the lowFODMAP diet for several months, eliminating excess fructose (found in fruits but also sodas, sports drinks, junk food), fried foods, and processed foods. This can lead to gastrointestinal symptom relief and may also have positive effects on mental health as well.

Eat Mindfully:

Enjoy your food without any distractions-no TV, computers or phone. Take a few deep breaths before and after your meal. This will help set your body up for better digestion. Be aware of your food, of the taste, smell and texture. Enjoy every bite and chew thoroughly.

Practice Relaxation Techniques:

Meditation, guided imagery, yoga, qigong, exercise, a warm bath, and aromatherapy are just a few examples of ways you can relax the nerves in your gut and mind.

Think Positive:

Change your negative thoughts and words to only be positive, reassuring, and inspirational. It takes some work, but it’s incredible how powerful your mind can actually be. You can use positive thinking with your diet too. For example, if you find yourself anxious before social events because you’re not sure of the food available, and later find yourself running to the bathroom, your thoughts might be activating stress and playing a role in your gut symptoms. Instead of thinking of what can go wrong, practice thinking the opposite and visualize yourself enjoying the event and the food.


Consider the following therapies to help with your IBS or other gastrointestinal symptoms and find a professional near you to help: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), gut-directed form of hypnotherapy and brief insight-oriented psychotherapy.

Go Technology-Free:

Give yourself breaks from technology. Turn off notifications on your phone. Set certain times of the day to read emails and limit your time when you are on social media.

Get Social Support:

IBS and other chronic gastrointestinal illnesses can take affect relationships, careers and one’s sex life. Shame, guilt, and anger can be common emotions. Just know that it’s normal to feel this way, and that you don’t have to do this all on your own. You don’t have to feel isolated. Join online groups of other people with IBS or other gastrointestinal disorders and diseases. They can understand you in ways that maybe some of your family, friends or coworkers cannot. Groups are also a great way to see how people like you have tackled an illness and have found better measures to caring for their bodies.

Just remember that IBS is very individual so what works for someone else may or may not work for you. Be your own patient advocate and see what works best for you. Consider also keeping track of your daily food and drink intake, your bowel movements and stressful situations with a Food & Symptom Diary.

Stress is a part of our daily lives. While we can’t always change the circumstances that lead to stress, we can incorporate daily stress reducing techniques that help mitigate our bodies’ response. These techniques will improve our emotional health, and can do wonders to improving our gut health too!

Have you been diagnosed with IBS by your doctor? Are you looking to ease symptoms and learn about how to utilize the low-FODMAP diet? Learn more about the Low-FODMAP Diet for Beginner’s Course and sign up today to reserve your spot!

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