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Stressed to your stomach: the link between stress and digestive issues

Could worry be upsetting your stomach?

It’s no surprise that stress can have negative effects on the body, however these effects can be particularly pronounced for the digestive system. According to the latest Medibank Better Health Index, as many as 1 in 4 Australians suffer from stress1, however those suffering from digestive issues are much more likely to be affected, with 1 in 2 sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome reporting to suffer from stress2.

Interestingly, the link between digestive issues and stress actually leads back to fight-or-flight — our body’s physiological response to a perceived threat or stressful situation. When we enter fight-or-flight mode, the body releases adrenaline and cortisol hormones, and diverts all energy to major muscle groups — ensuring we’re prepared to face this threat head-on. One of the downsides to this however, is that with no energy left to function, our digestive system slows right down. When this happens, we may feel symptoms like nausea, cramping, churning, or a sudden urge to go to the bathroom.

Commenting on the connection between stress and digestive issues, Dr Linda Swan, Medibank Chief Medical Officer, says: “While stress has not been found to cause digestive issues like coeliac disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), some sufferers have reported experiencing worsened symptoms when in stressful situations.

“While our bodies do return to normal once the perceived threat or stress has gone, what we’re noticing is that in today’s fast-paced world — full of financial worries, family stresses and competing work deadlines — we’re spending far too much time in fight-or-flight mode, and not enough time ‘resting and digesting’, which could suggest why we’re seeing an upward trend in digestive issues like IBS.”

There are numerous factors that could lead to digestive issues, however studies repeatedly suggest stress could play a role. Another reason to work on lowering your stress levels.

Here are some everyday things you can do to de-stress

  • Relax the mind: Effective relaxation techniques include breathing and muscle relaxation exercises, listening to soothing music and meditation, and taking a yoga class. To help you relax when on-the-go, we recommend downloading a calming mindfulness app.
  • Exercise: Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins, which not only help improve your mood, but also relieve unwanted stress and tension. It doesn’t need to be anything rigorous, a brisk walk could do wonders.
  • A healthy diet: As much as we might be tempted to reach for chocolate and junk food when stressed, a healthy diet is always a better option. In fact, items high in sugar and fat will only cause your digestive issues to worsen.

When to see your GP

If you’ve been experiencing ongoing issues with digestion, make sure you have a chat with your GP to make sure there aren’t other issues going on behind the scenes.

1 25.6% of people suffered from stress in the last 12 months, data collected October 2014 - September 2015.
2 Of those who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, 49.6% also suffered from stress in the last 12 months, data collected Oct 2014 - Sep 2015.

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