Ever found yourself using the phrase butterflies in your stomach or feeling like your stomach is in knots? Stomach issues have long been known to be linked to anxiety and stress. The link between the gut and the brain is more than just a funny feeling in your tummy, and can actually change your gut functioning and bowel motions.
Here are a few ways anxiety can affect your gut:
- Appetite Changes
Anxiety can impact your appetite, leading to either an increase or decrease in food intake. Some people may experience emotional eating or cravings for specific foods, while others may lose their appetite altogether. These fluctuations can disrupt normal digestion and nutrient absorption. Anxiety may also cause feelings of nausea or lead to vomiting, which also impacts food intake.
- Increased gut sensitivity
Anxiety can make the nerves in your gastrointestinal system overly sensitive, causing abdominal pain, bloating, and changes in bowel movements like diarrhoea or constipation.
- Altered gut movement
Anxiety can disrupt the normal muscle contractions in your digestive system (your gut motility), affecting the movement of food through your body. This can lead to problems with digestion, changes to your bowel motions, and a “butterflies in the stomach” feeling.
- Changes in the gut microbiota
Research shows that high levels of stress and anxiety have been linked with reduced microbiota diversity and changes to the composition of the gut microbiome. This link is bidirectional – the gut microbiome can affect the stress response and stress also disrupts the gut microbiome. These changes can contribute to digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and may even alter our perception of pain.
- Increased inflammation
Anxiety and stress can trigger an inflammatory response in the body, including within the gut. When chronic, this can lead to damage to the intestinal lining and affect nutrient absorption.
- Weakened immune system:
Anxiety can weaken your immune system, making you more prone to infections or worsening conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
In summary, anxiety can make your gut more sensitive, disrupt digestion, affect the balance of gut bacteria, cause inflammation, and weaken your gut’s immune system. Due to this, your child may experience altered toileting habits and behaviours when they are stressed. Similarly, if they have difficulty with toileting, stress is a common contributing factor. Talk to your GP, dietitian or occupational therapist if you have any concerns or questions about your child’s health.
SIENNA SMILEY (Occupational Therapist).