Why your stomach is sensitive to changes in mood

Everybody has had the sensation of butterflies in the stomach at one point or another. Have you ever wondered why your gut can often feel like it’s churning during moments of great stress?

A strong link

The stomach is firmly linked to your brain. Like the brain, your gut contains thousands of nerves and receptors. In fact, the stomach has the largest concentration of nerves outside of the brain. This can be seen when thinking about a meal you enjoy, your stomach prepares itself to digest food.  Additionally, a troubled stomach can send signals to the brain that lets you know something is wrong. This brain-stomach link might be part of the reason why gastrointestinal (GI) problems make up some of the most common symptoms of anxiety. (i)

The close relationship your brain and gut share can explain why you may feel ill right before talking in front of a large crowd. Stressful situations can leave your digestive system exhausted over time. When you are anxious, or under stress, your body releases a mixture of hormones and chemicals. These hormones can significantly impact the ‘good’ bacteria that live in your stomach, which can interfere with your digestive system’s healthy function. (ii)

How stress effects your stomach

Some of the most common symptoms related to stress include indigestion, cramps, diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, and a complete lack of appetite. Many people with GI disorders feel pain more sharply than others. Their brains have adapted to respond more to pain signals from the digestive tract’s nerves. Occasionally, stress can make existing aches and pains feel worse. (ii)(iii)

Scientists have been looking at the link between stress disorders and the impact they have on GI conditions. Some have argued that therapy to reduce stress would reduce stomach problems. Multiple studies have found that psychological treatments are highly effective in relieving digestive symptoms, compared to traditional medical treatment. (iii)

The stomach is an amazing organ and the link it shares with your brain means it is essential to look after both. For more information on the connection between stomach health and brain health, ‘The Sensitive Gut’ by Harvard Medical School is a great read. The full report can be found at https://www.health.harvard.edu/promotions/harvard-health-publications/the-sensitive-gut


i. Adaa.org. (2021). Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. [online] Available at: https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs [Accessed 29 Jan. 2021].

ii. Adaa.org. (2021). How to Calm an Anxious Stomach: The Brain-Gut Connection. [online] Available at: https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/how-calm-anxious-stomach-brain-gut-connection#:~:text=Whether%20it’s%20a%20single%20nerve,where%20they%20interfere%20with%20digestion. [Accessed 29 Jan. 2021].

iii. Harvard Health Publishing (2020). The gut-brain connection – Harvard Health. [online] Harvard Health. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection#:~:text=A%20troubled%20intestine%20can%20send,GI)%20system%20are%20intimately%20connected. [Accessed 29 Jan. 2021].


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