Is Your Stomach Churning? You May Have ‘Gut Stress’

Your stress response can mix up your innards like a blender
Is Your Stomach Churning? You May Have 'Gut Stress'

Contributor: Michael Roizen, MD

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If you’re experiencing bloating, pain or constipation, chances are you’re feeling stress — either as a cause, a result, or both.

Often, a difficult relationship is the reason for stress. We all experience relationship difficulties from time to time, but women are more susceptible to “gut stress” from relationships. (Men are generally more susceptible to “mind stress,” from financial worries.)

However stress affects you, internalizing it can lead to chronic health problems like heart disease, hypertension, obesity and depression.

Learning to change your response to stressful events can dramatically improve your health and well-being.

What happens when you’re stressed out

  • Your gut bacteria changes. Bad bacteria start to flourish, and good bacteria begin to die off. This changes the way foods you eat are digested. (Different bacteria process foods into different molecules.)
  • Your gut gets leakier. When you eat processed foods, some of the molecules escape from your intestine into your immune-processing pathways, increasing inflammation and other problems.
  • Your mood changes. Your gut produces even more of the mood-lifting chemical serotonin than your brain. But stress cuts its production, leaving you feeling uneasy and at risk of depression.
  • Your “fight, flight or freeze” switch stays on. Diverting all your energy to your muscles helped in prehistoric times: When you saw the woolly mammoth coming, you could quickly run away, or hit him on the nose and knock him out, or play dead. After the mammoth moved on, you could relax. Chronic stress in you keeps your “emergency button” on all the time. Your digestion remains altered, causing bloating, cramps, diarrhea and constipation.

How to develop a new stress response

Many of us respond to stress in a dysfunctional way. We hope the problem, or stressor, will go away, then treat ourselves to ice cream, simple sugars and carbs,  or red meat. (Sweet foods and foods with lecithin cholines and carnitine will change good gut bacteria to bad, increasing your gut distress.)

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Or we have a dysfunctional response — shopping, drinking or gambling too much to soothe ourselves — and then we have a bigger stress response afterward.

Handling stress in a functional way begins with the awareness that you’re under stress. Then you can deal with stress in a few different ways:

1. Try solving the problem

If overspending is stressing you out, you can set up a budget that helps you live within your means. Or you can tear up that problem credit card. Then arrange to have your 401K contribution auto-deducted from your paycheck.

If a relationship is difficult but necessary, figure out how to ease the tension. Maybe you always go in with a joke (laughter is a great stress-reliever)! Or you always include a third colleague or friend in your encounters. If the relationship is personal, you can find a passion you both share to enjoy.

2. Try refocusing your mind

When a stressful situation is unavoidable (and many of them are), you can breathe deeply or meditate through it.

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For example, if a guy cuts you off in traffic, rather than getting mad at him, you can do deep breathing in your car. Or you can try crunches, take a bath, enjoy a walk or do some gardening to calm down (not in the car)! Whatever works for you.

3. Try eliminating the stressor

If Uncle Joe always drives you crazy at Thanksgiving, you can make holiday plans with good friends instead, or just avoid Uncle Joe. If you’ve overcommitted yourself to volunteering or to social activities, try cutting back.

The bottom line

Your stress response can mix up your innards like a blender. But you can’t rely on bubble baths to get you through. And living unplugged on a Caribbean island would get boring pretty quickly.

Life’s challenges keep you stimulated, engaged and passionate about who you are and what you do.

It’s not about living stress-free; it’s about changing your response to stressful situations.

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