Effects of stress on the gut: causes, symptoms and tips

The young woman sits hunched over on the bed, holding her stomach in pain.

Is there anyone who doesn’t know it? You’re feeling stressed and then your stomach starts acting up, resulting in constipation, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea or nausea. Particularly hard hit by the effects of stress is the gut. We explain what helps combat stress-related gastro-intestinal problems.

How psyche and gut influence each other

Our brain and gut are directly connected to each other via the vagus nerve. The two organs communicate a lot with each other, with more than 500 million nerve cells interacting in the gut. This is another reason why the gut is often referred to as the second brain. Our psyche and our gut are closely connected. Negative feelings such as anxiety and nervousness caused by stress can stimulate the gut-brain axis. This leads to digestive problems and gastro-intestinal complaints with the following symptoms:

  • stomach ache
  • tummy ache
  • constipation
  • diarrhoea
  • flatulence
  • nausea or vomiting

How does the body react to acute stress?

Everyone has experienced stress at some point. To a certain extent, stress is part of life. However, negative stress can have a significant impact on our health. Finding itself in an acute stress situation, the body releases various hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol and puts the body on alert.

Symptoms of stress

The hormones released during stress increase blood pressure and blood sugar levels. This is harmful for the body. Stress symptoms are varied and range from exhaustion and depressive moods to high blood pressure, concentration difficulties and immune disorders. Experts also believe that stress contributes to conditions like cardiovascular diseases, mental illnesses and skin diseases.


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The consequences of permanent stress

Researchers suspect that long-term stress can lead to various diseases of the digestive tract. Examples include stomach ulcers in general, irritable stomach disorder, chronic inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis or irritable bowel syndrome.

Effects of stress on gut flora

Stress impairs the quality of our gut flora. Chronic stress causes the body to release more stress hormones, which reduces the bacterial diversity in the gut, damaging our microbiome as a result. This makes the gut susceptible to toxins, pathogens and allergies.

Did you know? The term microbiome refers to the totality of all micro-organisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc.) on and in our body. Most of them are located in the stomach and gut.

What helps combat stress-related gut complaints?

The effects of stress on the gut can be challenging. Basically, only one thing helps: stress reduction. However, certain stressful situations are sometimes unavoidable. In this case, various exercises and relaxation methods exist to help you find inner balance. The following measures can calm the stomach and gut and alleviate stress-related gut issues.

Yoga for digestion

Yoga is of help to many people in regulating their digestive problems caused by stress, alleviating gut-related issues and stimulating digestion. It promotes digestion as it helps the bowel to function normally, eases the pressure on the autonomic nervous system and reduces stress. When treating stress-related stomach problems, the focus should be on relaxation. Hatha yoga and yin yoga are considered particularly gentle, and are therefore well recommended.

Autogenic training to reduce stress

Autogenic training is a way of influencing your own mind and transports you into a deeply relaxed state. The exercises are made up of different phrases to be repeated while sitting or lying down. The practice allows the body – and therefore the gut – to calm down and the mind to relax. It also reduces sensitivity to stress, helps with pain relief and can be of support in the treatment of chronic pain.

Progressive muscle relaxation

This relaxation technique is ideal for calming the psyche and therefore the gut. It involves gradually tensing various muscle groups from head to toe and then releasing them again. These exercises lower blood pressure, slow the pulse and calm your breathing. The technique can alleviate stomach and gut problems.

Stimulate the vagus nerve

The vagus nerve's job is to transmit information from the brain to the gut and vice versa. When we’re stressed, the vagus nerve puts the gut into stress mode, which can then lead to problems in the gut. By stimulating the vagus nerve, positive stimuli can be triggered that ensure smooth digestion, relieve stomach cramps and generally lead to more relaxation.

Exercise: box breathing

Box breathing activates the vagus nerve and helps relieve stomach ache caused by stress. The exercise should be repeated several times:

  1. Inhale (4 seconds)
  2. Hold your breath (4 seconds)
  3. Exhale (4 seconds)
  4. Hold your breath (4 seconds)

Gut bacteria that reduce stress

Probiotics are living micro-organisms in food that contribute to a healthy gut flora. They help with digestive problems, lower high blood pressure, support the production of hormones and boost the immune system. To reduce stress, it’s of general benefit to strengthen the microbiome and expand the diversity of the gut bacteria.

Stress-related digestive problems can be regulated with probiotics.

Conclusion: address the causes of stress-related gut problems

Relaxation techniques can help reduce everyday stress and alleviate gut problems. A healthy gut can be achieved with factors that are often underestimated: a gut-friendly diet, good stress management and a well-planned work-life balance. Exercise also helps keep our gut flora in good shape.

If you have severe symptoms or serious gut problems, it’s advisable to consult a medical professional to get to the root causes of the problems.


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