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How to Figure Out if Stress Is Causing Your GI Symptoms

Image of How to Figure Out if Stress Is Causing Your GI Symptoms
Image of How to Figure Out if Stress Is Causing Your GI Symptoms

You might not be able to see it, but your mind and body are communicating constantly—every minute of every day. (Yes, surprisingly, they clock more hours with each other than you do with your cell phone.) But this isn’t just idle chatter. What one “says” can have a pretty big impact on the other.

For example, physical activity has been shown to improve mood and decrease stress, and episodes of anxiety and intense anger can increase the risk of a heart attack substantially. In addition, stress can have negative effects on the immune system. And this is just the tip of the gut-brain communication iceberg.

Of course, as someone with a gastrointestinal (GI) condition — whether it’s gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)—you’re probably already very aware of this mind-body connection. But you may be wondering: Which one is causing the other? Am I feeling down because my gut is messed up, or is my gut messed up because I’m feeling down?

Today, we’ll help you figure that out, in addition to what you can do about it.

What’s the connection between your mental health, stress, and your GI condition?

Gastrointestinal and mental health issues often go hand-in-hand. For example, many people who have IBS also have symptoms of anxiety and depression. And the association with anxiety and depression is high among patients with acid reflux, too.

But why is that?

Well, research shows that the microbiome (all the microorganisms in the gut) has a direct affect on mental health and brain functioning. Specific gut bacteria can impact brain chemistry, neural development, emotions, pain perception, and the response of the body’s stress system.

In turn, even the smallest increase in psychological stress can upset your microbiome’s balance. You see, both good and bad bacteria reside within your gut, and when you experience just a little bit of stress, the bad bacteria can take over. As a result, you’re more susceptible to illness and disease, among other things.

On top of that, your gut bacteria manufacture a ton of neurochemicals that are responsible for things like your mood, learning ability, and memory. For example, 95% of your body’s serotonin, a hormone that regulates mood and general happiness, is created in your gut. So, if your microbiome is off, the production of these vital neurochemicals could be too, thus affecting all the things those neurochemicals are responsible for.

So, psychological stress sends the gut out of whack, which then further exacerbates mental health symptoms. Do you see the vicious cycle?

One quick thing, though. Just because you have a GI condition does not mean you will develop depression, anxiety, or any other type of mental health issue. The point here is if you have both GI and mental health symptoms, this connection between your gut and mind could be the reason why.

How do you know if stress is causing your symptoms? Or if it’s the other way around?

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t clear cut. But here are a few things you can do to figure out what’s going on. Hopefully, these tips will help alleviate your GI and mental health symptoms.

Keep a mood and food diary

As you likely already know, people with IBS should try to completely avoid or limit dairy products, foods high in fructose, caffeine, and spicy foods. To decrease persistent reflux symptoms, those with acid reflux should stay away from citrus (e.g., orange juice), alcohol, coffee, carbonated drinks, garlic, onions, tomato sauces, chocolate, dairy, seafood, and foods that are spicy, fatty, or fried. For those with IBD, of which two major types are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, there are some more specific, tailored guidelines.

For at least a few weeks, closely track everything you put into your body, in addition to how you feel—both mentally and physically—throughout the day. You may notice you’re consuming more “off-limits” items than you think. Or, there could be another food or drink that directly correlates with your mental health symptoms.

Also, leading gastroenterologist and Evens medical advisor Dr. Gil Weitzman says that if your GI symptoms wane when you sleep, the issue is likely originating in your gut and not related to your mental health. So, track that, too.

Try an elimination diet

If you haven’t already, completely remove any and all trigger foods from your diet. If your food and mood diary helped you notice that other items are exacerbating your symptoms, stop consuming those, too. If your GI and psychological symptoms remain the same or worsen, that’s a good sign that your mental health and wellness needs some more attention.

Actively engage in stress-relieving techniques

Stress relief activities are always a good idea, especially since we know stress plays such a big role in GI conditions. Figure out what your top destressors are and get into the habit of practicing them regularly (not only when your GI symptoms are flaring up).

Consult with your GI doctor or therapist

You know your body best, but you don’t have to tackle your GI and mental health symptoms alone. If your symptoms are persistent despite your every effort, give your GI doctor and your therapist (if you have one) a call. That’s what they’re there for.

“If you perceive your mental health issues as stable and unchanged and yet your symptoms are new or progressively worsening,” says Dr. Weitzman, “then you should seek out medical attention to determine if there’s another condition to explain your GI complaints. And if you’re losing weight or noticing blood in your stool, you should always seek professional medical help.”

What are the best ways to destress?

There’s no right or wrong way to alleviate stress. The best way to figure out what’s right for you is to try the suggestions below until you identify the ones that decrease your stress.

  • Try breathing exercises
  • Meditate
  • Drink water
  • Grab a snack
  • Go for a walk
  • Write in a journal
  • Get a change of scenery
  • Put on your favorite music
  • Make a list of things that always make you laugh
  • Take a break from all screens
  • Do a non-work activity you love
  • Call a loved one
  • Take a nap
  • Treat yourself
  • Schedule time off or something else to look forward to
  • Make an appointment with a therapist
  • Take mental health medications (prescribed by a physician)

Working to treat your symptoms can go a long way, but reducing your stress will ultimately improve your overall health. Tackling both issues at once will help you not only start feeling better right away, but it’ll have longer-term results. And remember: Finding the right anxiety or stress reducer—the one that fits you best—can take time, so be patient with and kind to yourself throughout the process, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

Photo by Gray on Unsplash