Stress and Gastrointestinal Health

Many of us suffer from digestive problems at some time in our lives, but we may not realise the role that stress can play in the cause of some of these or in the severity of the symptoms. You may be surprised to learn just how closely linked the nervous system is to the digestive system.


The fight or flight response evolved to maximise our chance of surviving a potentially life-threatening situation, such a close encounter with a woolly mammoth. In a stressful situation, conscious thought processes are bypassed as the nervous system gears the body up to react rapidly to potential danger. This includes diverting blood from the digestive system to muscle tissue and the brain in order to optimise our ability to tackle the threat or to run away from it. It is that change in circulation that causes the sensation of butterflies in the stomach in frightening or exciting situations.


Other effects of stress on the digestive system are changes to gastric secretion (e.g. acid, mucus, enzymes, bile), the absorption of water and nutrients, and gut motility (peristalsis).


The fight or flight response is beneficial in certain circumstances, but not so under chronic low-level stress, as it can lead to digestive disorders such as peptic ulcer disease and irritable bowel syndrome.


To prevent digestive disorders and help manage existing problems, it is important to counteract chronic stress by practising regular relaxation techniques.  For more information on these, see my previous blog posts on mindfulness. For more information on gut health in general, see the NHS Choices website.


As well as helping to relieve stress, massage can benefit the digestive system in the following ways:

  • Improving circulation and so making the delivery of nutrients to and the removal of waste from tissues more efficient
  • Strengthening abdominal muscles and so assisting peristalsis, which prevents constipation and flatulence.


If you would like to try regular massage or shiatsu bodywork & acupressure to help you manage a gastrointestinal problem or to promote gut health, do get in touch to book an appointment or to find out more.