Emotional stress and the gut-brain connection

I think that most people who are diagnosed with a digestive disease spend some time trying to figure out what caused it. Doctors don’t know what triggers these illnesses, and in the absence of definitive answers, many of us go searching for our own. I think this is not only because humans are inquisitive by nature. I think it’s because we want to know that if we had any part to play in our illnesses – and in most cases, we did, at least to a greater or lesser degree – we want to be sure that we won’t keep perpetuating these actions.

For me, I know that poor diet was most likely a contributing factor. But having carefully traced the course of my ulcerative colitis, and having worked closely with a skilled nutritionalist, I came to realise – with shock but not surprise – that the onset of my disease, as well as my dermatological issues (psoriasis/eczema) coincided with a very unhappy period in my life when I was under intense and ongoing emotional distress as the result of a bad relationship.

But why does stress have this kind of effect on the digestive system? I did some digging because I’m a bit of a curious cat myself. There are thousands – maybe millions – of pages online chronicling on the brain-gut connection and stacking up the scientific evidence supporting the theory that our gut is our ‘second brain’. It is a system that is actually able to perform its functions independently of the brain, but which is also vulnerable to its own emotional, hormonal and physiological upsets. Here, I want to focus particularly on the emotional element.

Explaining the link between brain and gut

In a fascinating piece published by Harvard Medical School called The gut-brain connection, the author explains:

“The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Anger, anxiety, sadness, elation — all of these feelings (and others) can trigger symptoms in the gut.

“The brain has a direct effect on the stomach. 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 — so intimately that they should be viewed as one system.

“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.”

For myself, and I’m sure many of you, this last paragraph in particular resonates. Doctors tried to find a root cause of my ulcerative colitis, but came up with nothing solid. I hadn’t been ill. I hadn’t been on any treatment that may have caused it. I hadn’t contracted a parasite (despite my father’s insistence that I must’ve caught something in India in 2009!).


Which is why I kept searching for a cause. And, when I put the pieces together, only one thing made sense: The skin problems started 3 months into that relationship. The bleeding started a year in. It was the most emotionally fraught time of my entire life. To put it plainly, it was an emotionally, verbally and psychologically abusive relationship out of which, a friend told me recently, she was surprised I’d come out of alive.

In his article entitled How stress wreaks havoc on your gut – and what to do about itpublished on mercola.com, Dr Mercola says,

“Hippocrates once said that “all diseases begin in the gut,” and it’s also widely known that stress is a trigger that causes multiple chronic disease processes to occur. These two health dogmas are actually intricately intertwined, as stress is detrimental to your gut health, and together stress and a damaged gut can contribute to multiple inflammatory diseases and conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, chronic skin conditions, kidney problems, urinary conditions, allergic and atopic conditions, degenerative conditions, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and inflammatory bowel disease.

“To put it simply, chronic stress (and other negative emotions like anger, anxiety and sadness) can trigger symptoms and full-blown disease in your gut.”

So what can you to mitigate the effects of stress?

We all experience stress every day, and not all stress is bad. Think about it: If you didn’t feel stress, you wouldn’t feel compelled to get out of bed in the morning and get to work on time. You wouldn’t study for exams and for me personally, I’d never hit a deadline! Stress is integral to daily life, and for many of us, it spurs us into action and ensures that we get stuff done. The problem is when it’s the kind of stress that keeps you up at night; that causes your hair to fall out and propels you into the loving embrace of fried food.

We all know that kind of stress. It’s the kind that makes your tummy twist into knots, gives you cramps, leads to diarrhoea (even people without any known GI issues experience this) and keeps you in a heightened state of anxiety and nervousness. It’s when you feel like you’re always on edge, and you can’t switch off the nagging worries in your mind. Maybe you binge on food, alcohol or drugs. Maybe you cry. Maybe you fall apart. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist – or even a gastroenterologist – to know that this kind of stress is Super Bad For You.


Okay so, everyday stress = okay. Major, ongoing stress = not okay.

The good news is that you DO have the ability to manage the stresses in your life. Like school and work and traffic. Even abusive relationships at home or at work, or financial worries. And while there are many types of major stresses we can’t easily overcome, there are plenty that we can.


If we’re to heal, and at the very least ensure that our bodies are no longer subjected to the onslaught of negative stress, we need to find ways to manage the stresses in our lives. So mitigate the ones you can. Wherever possible, limit your stress or manage it better. Because when you’re faced with a sick child or a financial collapse, it’s going to be hard to control your stress response. But when you’re sitting in traffic and a driver cuts you off, or you’re standing in a queue and someone cuts in… let it go. Trust me, I know this is hard! I get worked up SOOO easily. But I know I owe it to myself, and my health, to try, and I am making the effort.

As I like to say: stay calm, stay positive, reduce stress. If you can do that every day – or at least try to – you’ll already be well on your way to giving your gut a much, much needed break from the crushing effects of stress. Oh, and kick that abusive relationship to the curb. Whether it’s a boss, a partner or a family member, there is no negotiation. Trust me, you’ll never look back.


4 thoughts on “Emotional stress and the gut-brain connection

  1. Good for you! A relationship is never an easy thing to walk away from, even when it’s a bad one. And thank goodness we’ve learnt our lessons!


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