How can stress cause gastrointestinal (GI) problems?

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Lawrence S. Friedman, MD
Gastroenterology
Given how closely the gut and brain interact, it becomes easier to understand why you might feel nauseated before giving a presentation, or feel intestinal pain during times of stress. Emotional and psychosocial factors play a role in functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorders.

That doesn't mean, however, that functional gastrointestinal illnesses are imagined or "all in your head." Psychology combines with physical factors to cause pain and other bowel symptoms. Psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut, as well as the modulation of symptoms. In other words, stress (or depression or other psychological factors) can affect movement and contractions of the GI tract, cause inflammation, or make you more susceptible to infection.

In addition, research suggests that some people with functional GI disorders perceive pain more acutely than other people do because their brains do not properly regulate pain signals from the GI tract. Stress can make the existing pain seem even worse.

These observations suggest that at least some patients with functional GI conditions might find relief 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 symptoms compared with patients who received conventional medical treatment.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.