How Stress Affects Digestion

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Inflammation, Oxidative Stress & Free Radical Damage to Health

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Stress
  • 0:32 Digestion
  • 2:24 IBS and IBD
  • 3:43 Ulcers
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed
Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

Stress can do more to your digestive system than leave you with an upset stomach. Learn how stress affects digestion, including conditions that have been linked to stress, such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.


If there's one sure thing about stress, it's that we all have to deal with it. I don't think it comes as a surprise that stress can disrupt healthy digestion. After all, who hasn't experienced that kicked in the gut feeling that comes when your boss piles more work on your desk or you get asked to speak in public? In fact, stress is capable of doing much more than creating an uncomfortable sensation in your stomach. In this lesson, we will take a look at digestive tract issues attributed to stress.


In a way, you could say that your digestive tract has a mind of its own. This is due to the enteric nervous system, or intrinsic nervous system, which is a division of the autonomic nervous system that controls digestive processes. The enteric nervous system is a complex system consisting of millions of neurons and supporting cells. In other words, your gastrointestinal tract is highly wired and tuned into what is going on inside your brain. When acute stress hits, this wiring gets short circuited and digestive processes shut down.

This happens for a good reason. When you encounter a stressful situation, resources get shifted to help you survive. Activities needed to fight or take flight, such as muscle contractions, breathing and heart function, get resources funneled their way. This means that less pressing issues, like digesting dinner, get put on hold. If all is well, this response is temporary and normal digestion resumes when the threat goes away. However, if the stress becomes chronic, it can negatively impact your ability to digest foods. This is due in part to the fact that stress can alter gastrointestinal mobility and affect the secretions of digestive juices.

Stress can also impact the intestinal lining because it can cause inflammation and inhibit the regenerative ability of the intestinal lining. We also see that stress can inhibit the effectiveness of the intestinal microflora, which are friendly bacteria that reside in the digestive tract and support digestive health. These issues can manifest into a number of digestive disorders, or make existing disorders worse.


Initially, prolonged stress may show up as vague symptoms, such as stomach pain, nausea or either diarrhea or constipation. Chronic stress can escalate symptoms and lead to a diagnosed condition. Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a chronic condition that causes abdominal pain, cramps, bloating and alternating constipation and diarrhea. The cause of IBS is unknown, but it is known that stress exacerbates the symptoms. IBS is a perplexing condition because when the colon of a person with IBS is examined, it appears to be normal. This makes it distinguishable from inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, which is a chronic condition that is characterized by widespread inflammation of the digestive tract.

IBD and IBS are two conditions with similar-sounding names and somewhat similar symptoms, so they are often confused. To complicate matters even farther, both conditions are exacerbated by stress. The differentiation is made upon examination. Unlike IBS patients, the intestinal tract of a patient with IBD will show signs of destructive inflammation.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account