How Stress Affects the Gut; Our Second Brain

  • Stress

  4 mins reading

The enteric nervous system that regulates our intestines is now recognised by science as the body's "second brain". It is a single communication pathway in which the same molecules (neurotransmitters) that are used to facilitate digestion also alert the brain when something is wrong.

This "second brain" is also made up of trillions of bacteria that interact with the enteric nervous system. Numerous studies report that gut bacteria, and their byproducts can affect mood, cognition, behaviour and metabolism.

Let’s take a look at common stress-related gut discomfort

When a stress response is in place, the body is likely to experience uncomfortable sensations such as bellyaches, gut discomfort , nausea or the feeling of having "butterflies" in the tummy. This is a sure sign that the messages travel along a two-way path from the gut to the brain, and vice versa.


Since intestinal microbiota play a role in protecting and maintaining our overall health and wellbeing, when imbalance occurs due to stress, one of the first symptoms is usually that of bellyaches. This is the body’s way of indicating that something has gone wrong. Ultimately, one could say that intestinal microbiota plays a role in protecting and maintaining our overall health and wellbeing, including our mental health.

Learn more about bellyaches

Occasional diarrhea

When stress-related gut discomfort is left to escalate in severity, occasional diarrhea is likely to make an appearance. Your gut has become weak and vulnerable, making it difficult for stool to harden before reaching the anus for expulsion.

Learn more about occasional diarrhea


Stress-related digestive imbalance tends to come with a level of gas retention in the gut. Sometimes, the pressure is so severe that it pushes up into the diaphragm, causing acid reflux. Nausea is easily treatable, but when it is stress-induced, it is likely to reoccur.

Here are some helpful ways to prevent gut-related pain

Relaxation and exercise

Any activity that reduces the level of stress you are experiencing is one that should be implemented more regularly. For some, these are relaxation techniques including meditation and diaphragmatic breathing. For others, exercise is preferred, and activities such as yoga, offer both the benefit of relaxation and a workout at once.


Probiotics are live and active microorganisms named after the Greek word “pro bios” which means “for life”. When taken in adequate quantities, these microorganisms favour the balance of the intestinal flora. Here are a few things you should know:

When to take them

To be effective, probiotics should be taken consecutively for about 3-4 weeks in a minimum quantity of at least one billion bacteria per day.

Efficacy and usefulness

Efficacy and usefulness are recognised properties in a wider context. This includes a healthy lifestyle, proper nutrition and regular physical activity.

Balance of the intestinal bacterial flora

Probiotic-based supplements have the ability to promote the balance of the intestinal bacterial flora because they are able to survive the passage in the stomach and arrive intact in the intestinal tract, where they reproduce colonies of good-bacteria that carry out beneficial functions.

Learn more about probiotics

Proper Nutrition

A stressful lifestyle needs balanced nutrition to keep the gut from spiralling into a state of disharmony. Here are a few recommendations:

Stress and the gut: How are they related?

There is but a single gut-brain axis, and therefore the influence is reciprocal in terms of response between gastro-intestinal symptoms and stress. This is especially true in cases where bellyaches or other gastrointestinal upset is experienced without an obvious organic cause. For example:

The mere thought of food or a succulent meal can induce the release of gastric juices even if the food has not yet been consumed.

A troubled gut can send signals to the brain just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut; therefore, bellyaches or intestinal discomfort upset can be the cause of stress and vice versa.

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