Guest Post by Ryan Rivera
Often when people think of anxiety symptoms, they focus on the obvious ones – shaking, physical tension, maybe a bit of nausea. Very few people realize the variety of ways that anxiety and stress affect all sorts of issues.
One of the most common issues seen in those with profound stress and anxiety is digestive problems. That means that for those already dealing with digestive health problems, anxiety can be extremely troubling:
- Anxiety may exacerbate already profound gastrointestinal issues.
- Anxiety may actually cause or contribute to diagnosable digestion issues.
Most scientists believe that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is often related to anxiety issues, and others have found that conditions like GERD – while it may not be caused by anxiety – is often exacerbated by stress. This is especially troublesome for those that already have digestion issues, as digestion problems can lead to anxiety, which in turn would lead to more gastrointestinal issues.
For those with anxiety and mental health issues, digestive health problems often make these mental health issues worse. For example, those with depression that are consistently dealing with stomach health issues often find that how their stomach feels can actually trigger further depression, as it causes a pain and discomfort that affects their quality of life even further.
It’s for that reason that many experts recommend those with digestive health problems improve their stress, such as through exercise, relaxation strategies like deep breathing, and other stress reduction methods. It’s unlikely to “cure” the digestive issues (except perhaps in the case of IBS), but it can make them considerably less severe.
The Gut and the Brain
What’s interesting, however, is that scientists now believe that digestion may actually be affecting the brain, not just the other way around. Based on the way that the nerves and responses are interconnected, the idea is that when your stomach experiences stress, that stress travels up to your brain, where it is interpreted as mental stress. Studies have linked several issues (such as alcohol’s effect on digestion) to the development of brain health problems, such as “brain fog,” anxiety, depression, and more.
These studies are starting to conclude that there may be a role that digestion plays in the creation and development of mental health problems, especially those that have a bit less of an event cause (such as a recent breakup). There are many people living with anxiety and depression that do not know or understand where there symptoms are coming from, and it’s possible that the cause is not just in genetics – it may also be in the gut.
Finally because of the gut/brain connection, both may be cycling each other. Those with gastrointestinal health issues may experience more anxiety, which means that they experience further gastrointestinal issues and so on.
Getting Help for Both
These connections between your anxiety and your gut not only affect your health – they also affect the way you talk to your doctor about your health. Rather than just talk about your gut, or just talk about your anxiety, it may be in your best interests to discuss both separately, giving your doctor the whole picture so that they can recommend a treatment type that will improve both issues and break any anxiety/gut discomfort cycle. When you talk to your doctor, you should consider noting the following:
- Mental Health – Make sure that you’ve noted any of your mental health experiences whether you believe them to be relevant or not.
- Poor Digestion Causes/Triggers/Experiences – Symptoms of digestive dysfunction are different for everyone. Knowing, and relaying the specifics will help with a diagnosis.
- Note Other Physical Problems – Make sure you’re also noting any seemingly unrelated physical problems as well. For example, some people with GERD experience an ear fullness/popping sensation. Those experiences may be relevant for your doctor, because they may be caused by anxiety, or caused by physical problems.
Research continues to reinforce the link between digestion and mental health. That’s why when you’re suffering from both digestive discomfort and anxiety, it’s important to treat them both as equals. Treating your stress is unlikely to cure your gastrointestinal issues, and treating your digestion is unlikely to cure all anxiety, but leaving one untreated will very likely make it harder for you to achieve the relief you’re looking for.
About the Author: Ryan Rivera suffered from intense digestion problems both as a result of and related to his anxiety. He writes about anxiety and health at www.calmclinic.com.