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Stress and the Digestive System

Stress doesn't only make you feel bad emotionally but also physically. Remember the last time you had to speak in public? Well, those butterflies you felt in your stomach might had been a sign of a GI problem caused by your anxiety. Stress has been found to be linked to several gastrointestinal issues. 

"Stress can cause your esophagus to go into spasms. It can increase the acid in your stomach causing indigestion. Under stress, the mill in your stomach can shut down and make you feel nauseous. Stress can cause your colon to react in a way that gives you diarrhea or constipation. We are all familiar with the athlete or the student who has to rush to the bathroom before the big game or the big exam," explains Kenneth Koch, MD, professor of medicine, section on gastroenterology and medical director of the Digestive Health Center at Wake Forrest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C."Although stress may not cause stomach ulcers, celiac disease, or inflammatory bowel disease, it can make these and other diseases of digestion worse."

How to Keep Stress Under Control to Aid Digestion

"One of the best ways to manage stress and maintain healthy digestion is moderate exercise," Koch says. Physical activity relieves tension and stimulates the release of brain chemicals called endorphins that relieve stress and improve your mood. Other stress reducers include:

  • Relaxation Therapy. People who have stress-related problems with digestion often benefit from relaxation therapies such as yoga, meditation, hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation, mental imaging, biofeedback, and even music. One study found that people with irritable bowel syndrome found significant relief from pain, bloating, and diarrhea from a relaxation therapy called Relaxation Response, which was developed by a researcher at the Harvard Medical School.
  • Talk Therapy. Talking to friends or loved ones about your stress can be a big help, and actual talk therapy that involves working with a therapist can be particularly valuable. A trained therapist can help you find better ways to deal with your stress. Mental health professionals use cognitive behavioral therapy to teach people new coping skills. In a recent study of people with irritable bowel syndrome, 70 percent saw improvement in their symptoms after 12 weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Diet and Dining. Eating foods that are bad for your digestion can be a cause of stress. Don’t deal with stress by overeating or binging on junk food. "Your digestive system appreciates a healthy, well-balanced diet. Avoid extremes of sugar, fat, and alcohol," advises Koch. "Consider dining, not refueling, when it comes to eating. A relaxed, unhurried, candle-light atmosphere is good for digestion.
  • Limit Stressors. Resist easing stress by smoking or using alcohol. Relying on drugs to deal with stress can also be tough on digestion. "People who are constantly popping over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications for stress headaches can be damaging their digestive tract," warns Koch. Avoid too much coffee and soft drinks that give you a jolt of caffeine and sugar.
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