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The Gut-Brain Connection Explains Why Stress Hurts Your Stomach

If you’ve ever had butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous, you may have experienced the new ‘stress belly.’ Here, experts explain the link—and how to feel better

Women are more than twice as likely as men to suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and if you’re one of the 45 million Americans who live with the condition, you know all too well the devastating impact it can have on quality of life. With symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation (or a mixture of all of the above), IBS can affect your ability to socialize and enjoy your favorite foods, and it can significantly raise your stress levels. And experts now say it all comes down to the gut-brain connection. Keeping reading to learn how the two are linked — and how to feel better.

What is IBS?

“IBS is likely composed of a number of different diseases that present with similar symptoms, and for which we currently do not have reliable diagnostic tests,” notes William D. Chey, MD, chief of gastroenterology at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor. That means it’s difficult to treat, and it’s why medicine works for some, but not others—or works sometimes, but not always.

Historically, doctors shrugged off IBS as the physical manifestation of a “nervous mind.” But now, science has shed light on the implications of the gut-brain connection and how closely the two interact. Specifically, that the enteric nervous system, located in the gut, regulates digestive processes such as motility, or movement of food through the intestines; and also sends signals to the brain that impact mood and mental processes, including memory and focus. And because the relationship is bidirectional, the brain sends signals to the gut that affect its function and the makeup of the microbes it contains.

3 ways to ease IBS symptoms

Research has shown that the majority of IBS patients associate their symptoms with two triggers: food and stress, asserts Kate Scarlata, RDN, and Megan Riehl, PsyD, coauthors of Mind Your Gut. While they say many women find relief by adopting a diet low in FODMAPs (short for carbs known as fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols), Scarlata and Riehl have developed an empowering plan that eases IBS by taming the top gut-brain disruptors. Here, their simple strategies to alleviate the symptoms of this gut-stress connection so you can enjoy life to the fullest.

1. Harness your breath

woman breathing; gut-stress connection

Stress—including chronic, adverse childhood events and trauma—not only contributes to the development of IBS, it also aggravates its symptoms, say researchers in the World Journal of Gastroenterology. “Your stomach is filled with nerves and is highly susceptible to both the psychological and physiological effects of stress, “explains Riehl, associate professor of medicine and the director of GI Behavioral Health at the University of Michigan. “These effects can lead to changes in the immune system and nervous system, which alter chemicals that help the body break down foods during digestion and influence how quickly food moves through the intestines.”

And while nearly all women have felt the digestive effects of stress (such as abdominal pain and an urgent need to empty the bowels ),at some point, those with IBS can feel these symptoms more intensely and more frequently.

woman breathing deeply

The key to relief? Meeting stress-induced symptoms with a relaxation response as soon as you feel them coming on, says Rieh. She advises diaphragmatic breathing. “It activates the body’s calming parasympathetic nervous system to soothe symptoms.”

To do: Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Slowly breathe in through your nose for a count of four, filling your lungs completely (your top hand should remain steady while your lower hand rises with your breath). Pause for one to two seconds, then breathe out through your mouth for six seconds, feeling your lower hand fall as you do. Repeat for a total of 10 times.

2. Use food as medicine

woman eating breakfast smiling

“Nutrition is key is key for calming and soothing IBS,” notes Scarlata, who advises a gentle diet cleanup. This means giving your dietary routine a once-over to see if common GI triggers (like spicy foods and fatty fare) or eating habits (eating too fast or not chewing enough) may be playing a role in your symptoms.

Also key: eating meals—including breakfast—at regular intervals. “Many women with IBS skip breakfast or avoid eating during the day because they worry symptoms will strike after eating,” she notes. “But skipping meals can backfire by making you eat more when you finally do eat, which can stress the digestive system.”

MUST-READ: Top MDs Reveal the 10 Best Foods to Eat For Gut Health

3. Diversify your gut

plate of fruit and vegetables; gut-stress connection

Most people with IBS don’t have the variety of gut bacteria that help to optimize gut-brain communication and ease IBS, Scarlata says. But instead of taking probiotics, she suggests focusing on adding more plants to your plate to help the gut-stress connection. Findings from the University of California, San Diego, reveal that folks who eat 30 types of plants per week have a richer array of gut bacteria than their counterparts who eat only 10 types weekly. But build slowly, advises Scarlata, by adding one new fruit, vegetable, whole grain or nut to your diet each week until you hit that goal of 30.

Also smart: Enjoying 20 to 30 minutes of easy activities like walking, swimming or bicycling most days of the week, and getting 7 to 9 hours of shuteye per night, she says. Gentle exercise and ample sleep not only reduce stress, studies show they enhance gut bacteria diversity.

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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