Response to Stress

by Emily Berger and Rebecca Morley

No, it’s not just in your head.

When you’re stressed out, scientific research confirms that your body responds physiologically.

Think back to the last time you had butterflies in your stomach before an important presentation. They may have initiated in the brain, but it was the stomach that felt them.

Did you know that the stomach and intestines actually have more nerve cells than the entire spinal cord? That is why our digestive tract is so sensitive and might be the root of the term “gut feelings.”

Chris Woolston earned his master’s degree in biology from Montana State University in Bozeman and has a graduate certificate in science writing and communication from the University of California Santa Cruz.

He tells us that some experts call the digestive system a “mini brain.” He writes, “A highway of nerves runs directly from the real brain to the digestive system, and messages flow in two directions.”

Doctors have uncovered a remarkably complex connection between the brain and the digestive system.

When the brain feels severely stressed, it unleashes a cascade of hormones, including adrenaline and
cortisol that can put the whole digestive system in an uproar. These stress hormones help fuel us for the “fight or flight” response by elevating our blood pressure, accelerating our pulse, raising our blood sugar levels, and releasing fat from fat cells.

Though this response is necessary for the survival of the human species and life-saving under high-risk
circumstances, today’s complex society can cause frequent or even what feels like constant stress.

Long-term exposure to cortisol from chronic stress can be toxic to our bodies and is associated with weight gain, increased irritability, anxiety, insomnia and may encourage poor eating habits.

Over time, when stress isn’t managed effectively, it will start to hinder other systems in the body, also.

Chronic stress has been shown to negatively impact hormone balance, immune function, musculoskeletal health, and neurological health.

The sources of stress can vary and overlap to increase our risk for distress and disease:

  • Mental/emotional such as conflict in relationships with family, friends or coworkers, death of a loved one, difficult deadlines, or financial problems.
  • Physiological stress, including our body’s response to both acute and chronic disease and medications used to treat them.
  • Environmental stress such as exposure to toxins, radiation, pesticides, excessive noise, crowding and excessive screen time.
  • Physical stress such as over- or improper exercising, exposure to extreme hot or cold.

Stress of any kind can wreak havoc on the digestive tract, leading to inflammation, constipation,
diarrhea, bloating, and a slew of other negative symptoms.

Even short bouts of stress can cause us to experience sudden lack of appetite, heartburn, nausea and stomach pains. Stress can decrease nutrient absorption, increase nutrient excretion, affect how the body uses the nutrients, as well as increase nutrient requirements.

Stress is seen as a major player in a wide range of digestive problems, including irritable bowel
syndrome, indigestion, heartburn and ulcers. Stress hormones also cause inflammation throughout the
digestive system, which leads to aggravation of the digestive tract.

Throwing your digestive tract out of whack impacts the absorption of nutrients from foods, which may
help explain why you’re more prone to allergies, eczema, colds, flu and mental fog when you’re under
serious and/or continual stress.

You can help lower cortisol levels, boost natural defenses, and decrease negative effects of stress on
your body and mind by fueling your body with the nutrients it needs to stay healthy.

If you crave junk food during times of stress, you are not alone. Though steamed broccoli or a
nice green salad would probably do our body more good than that candy bar, they’re not typical stress-induced choices.

The stress hormones, which are basically steroids, can make a person feel uncontrollably hungry, which
is why some people fight stress with ice cream, chocolate, or potato chips.

On the other side of the fence, some people’s bodies react to stress by a lack of appetite, which causes them to almost quit eating entirely. Others turn to alcohol, or stimulants such as caffeine or nicotine.

The better nourished you are, the better able you are to cope with stress. It is well known that changes take place in the levels of circulating hormones when stress occurs.

Though much is known, the precise influence of a stress-altered metabolism on nutrient requirements
is still being researched. Some scientists have stated that almost any form of stress may influence
nutritional balance. This is because stress causes a general arousal (the fight or flight response already mentioned) that increases the body’s metabolism, or the rate at which the body changes food supplies into energy.

Metabolic rate drives the requirements for nutrients. Simply put, just as a speeding car needs more gas, a stressed body needs more fuel. Better fuel quality leads in optimal performance.

The increased metabolism can also cause an increase in the use and excretion of vitamins such as A, C, D, E, K and B complex, and minerals suchas magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, chromium, selenium, zinc, and potassium. You can imagine what happens if your body’s “tank” is low on nutrition “fuel.”

While stress alters nutrient needs, if you are marginally deficient in a nutrient, stress can make
that deficiency even worse.

Poor nutrition or under-nutrition is itself a stress on the body. If you react to stress with increased
sugar and fat consumption, it also contributes to the stress our body experiences due to widely fluctuating blood sugar and potentially clogged arteries. Another vicious cycle!

According to Philip Rice, of the Stress and Health Department at Moorhead State University, “Eating
right is just as important as managing stress because vulnerability to stress increases with poor diet.”

A high-fiber diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains provides greater appetite
satisfaction over a longer period than processed, high-fat, and high-sugar snacks.

More importantly, when you replace junk foods with fresh, high-fiber plant foods, you are more likely
to consume greater amounts of vitamins A, B6, C and the B vitamins niacin, thiamin, riboflavin and folate.

These nutrients are all vital to a healthy metabolism and provide significant stress protection.
Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University stress expert and author of the best-selling book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” says people are looking for scientific explanations for some of life’s most common maladies.

By understanding how stress affects our bodies, we can explore new avenues for prevention and treatment of many conditions.

With the holidays around the corner, we may eagerly anticipate celebrations with family and friends. But there may also be increased pressures and demands on time and budgets that cause us to feel stressed.

The good news is that a well-balanced diet can affect how you handle stress. While we cannot eliminate all of the stress in our lives, we can certainly practice better management of it.

In addition to diet, these are simple, yet healthy tools, proven to reduce stress:

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Yoga
  • A leisurely walk
  • Call a supportive friend or family member

After implementing a healthy diet and practicing stress reduction activities, if your digestive system
still isn’t running smoothly, don’t suffer in silence.

According to a report from the University of North Carolina, as many as 80 percent of people with IBS
or other functional gastrointestinal problems never discuss their symptoms with a doctor.

That’s unfortunate, because doctors can often prescribe medications to get the digestive system
back on track. Your health care provider can also check for underlying diseases that might explain your

Consider asking if you would be a good candidate for cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, relaxation therapy, or another form of counseling.

You can do your part to battle stress by eating a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of sleep. Learn to live well and relax by adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors today.

You’ll benefit from better nutrient absorption and decreased stress levels. You can alter the vicious
stress-induced cycle to a more positive energy flow.

Emily Berger is a Community Health and Prevention Sciences Program major at the University of Montana interning with the Missoula City-County Health Department. Rebecca Morley provides nutrition services through the Eat Smart Program at the Missoula City-County Health Department and can be reached at 258-3827 or at

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