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The Connection Between The Nervous System and The Digestive System

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

Have you ever felt so stressed that you got a stomach ache or felt nauseous? That’s because your nervous system and digestive system are closely connected.

This is not always good news for people with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

Experiencing chronic stress can lead to constant flare-ups and increased symptoms.

As a digestive specialist and Sibo Naturopath, I see this problem all the time in my practice. This is exactly why I address stress with my patient as part of their Crohn’s natural treatment, Ulcerative colitis natural treatment, or Sibo natural treatment plan. Today, I want to talk about the connection between your nervous system and your digestive system.

What Is Stress?

Stress is your body’s natural response to any perceived threat. But stress is not always bad for you. Some stress is actually beneficial for your well-being. Let’s get into the three different types of stress.

Eustress vs Chronic strass

Taking on a new project or going on a trip can be exciting but also challenging or even scary at the same time. These are sources of eustress. Eustress is positive stress that can make you feel motivated, inspired, and content. It can help you build self-esteem, resilience, and autonomy (1).

Acute stress and chronic stress, however, can be sources of bad stress. Acute stress is a short-term, one-time event, such as being in an accident or getting robbed. Acute stress can be very distressing and may even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (2, 3).

Chronic stress is ongoing stress that can happen despite any immediate (acute) threat. Examples of chronic stress may include job stress, constant arguments with your spouse, and ongoing financial worries are all examples of chronic stress. Chronic stress can be just as impactful as acute stress (2, 3).

How Does Stress Affect Your Digestive System

Did you know that your gut is also called your second brain? There is a reason for that. Your gut is partly controlled by your central nervous system. Your gut also has its own network of neurons located in your gut lining. It’s also known as your intrinsic or enteric nervous system.

The 100 million nerve cells of your enteric nervous system control your digestive system. They control swallowing, breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, releasing waste, and all other digestive processes.

With all these nerve cells, it’s not surprising that stress can impact your digestive system. In a stressful situation, your sympathetic nervous system will respond with a fight-or-flight response. It will release cortisol, a stress hormone, to help your body get through the stress.

Experiencing stress causes a number of physiological changes, including rapid heartbeat, quicker breathing, elevated blood pressure, muscle tension, and an increased state of awareness. The fight-or-flight response also forces your body to decrease or shut down unnecessary activities in your body. When you are trying to escape from a bear chasing you, digestion is the last thing you need.

Thus your body will decrease blood and oxygen flow to your stomach to decrease digestion-related activities. This may lead to cramping, nausea, diarrhea, and constipation. Long-term, chronic stress can also lead to increased chronic inflammation and microbiome imbalance.

This can be especially problematic if you are dealing with IBDs, such as Ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. As a gastrointestinal specialist and Sibo Naturopath specializing in Crohn's natural treatment and Ulcerative colitis natural treatment (as well as other digestive disorders and inflammations like Sibo, Gastritis, etc), I see patients all the time that experience increased symptoms and flare-ups due to stress.

How Can We Reduce Our Stress Levels

To improve your symptoms and prevent flare-ups, we need to address your stress levels as part of your Crohn's and Ulcerative colitis natural treatment plan.

Here are the best techniques which were found very effective in reducing stress levels and improving the person’s adaptation to stress:

Yoga (6)

Meditation (7)

Breathwork (8)

Regular exercise (9)

Better time-management skills (10)

Quality sleep (11)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy or other therapy (12)

Adaptogenic Herbs for Stress and Digestion

To help your body to become more adaptive to stress, I also recommend some adaptogenic herbs as part of your Crohn's natural treatment, Ulcerative colitis natural treatment, or SIBO natural treatment plan.

Adaptogenic herbs are herbs that can counteract the effects of stress on your body. Here is what I recommend:

Withania somnifera (also known as Ashwagandha)

Research has found that ashwagandha may help to reduce stress, improve sleep, and support well-being (13). You may take ashwagandha in a capsule or powder form at any time of the day. If you are using it as a powder, you may add it to your smoothies or power balls.

Astragalus root:

Research has shown that Astragalus may help to improve stress, anxiety, and learning (14). You may use Astragalus as a tea, liquid extract, or capsule.

Glycyrrhiza glabra (also known as licorice)

Research has shown that licorice may be great for stress and depression (15). You may use licorice as tea or in the form of a capsule or chewing tablet.

Panax quinquefolium (also known as American ginseng)

Research has shown that American ginseng may increase calmness, memory, and cognition (16). You may take American ginseng as a capsule, powder or tincture.

My Recommendation

If you are looking to reduce your stress levels as part of your Crohn’s natural treatment or Ulcerative colitis natural treatment, I recommend that you follow my tips in this blog.

Here is one of my favorite supplements of Ashwagandha from IHERB:

Ashwagandha California Gold Nutrition

Bare in mind that it is important to consult with a professional Naturopath before using medicinal herbs.

If you are looking for natural treatment options for digestive issues from a Naturopath, I urge you to make an appointment today here. As a gastrointestinal specialist and Sibo Naturopath, I specialize in Crohn's natural treatment, Ulcerative colitis natural treatment, Sibo natural treatment, and many other digestive imbalances.


1. The good stress: How eustress helps you grow. The American Institute of Stress. Link Here

2. Fanai M, Khan MAB. Acute Stress Disorder. [Updated 2022 Jul 12]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Link Here

3. Acute stress vs chronic stress: What’s the difference. PsychCentral Link Here

4. Madison A, Kiecolt-Glaser JK. Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human-bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition. Curr Opin Behav Sci. 2019 Aug;28:105-110. doi: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2019.01.011. Epub 2019 Mar 25. PMID: 32395568

5. Jane A. Foster, Linda Rinaman, John F. Cryan, Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome, Neurobiology of Stress, Volume 7, 2017. Link Here

6. Shohani M, Badfar G, Nasirkandy MP, Kaikhavani S, Rahmati S, Modmeli Y, Soleymani A, Azami M. The Effect of Yoga on Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in Women. Int J Prev Med. 2018 Feb 21;9:21. doi: 10.4103/ijpvm.IJPVM_242_16. PMID: 29541436

7. Julieta Galante, Géraldine Dufour, Maris Vainre, Adam P Wagner, Jan Stochl, Alice Benton, Neal Lathia, Emma Howarth, Peter B Jones, A mindfulness-based intervention to increase resilience to stress in university students (the Mindful Student Study): a pragmatic randomised controlled trial, The Lancet Public Health, Volume 3, Issue 2, 2018. Link Here

8. Ma X, Yue ZQ, Gong ZQ, Zhang H, Duan NY, Shi YT, Wei GX, Li YF. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Front Psychol. 2017 Jun 6;8:874. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874. PMID: 28626434

9. Childs E, de Wit H. Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults. Front Physiol. 2014 May 1;5:161. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2014.00161. PMID: 24822048

10. Ghiasvand AM, Naderi M, Tafreshi MZ, Ahmadi F, Hosseini M. Relationship between time management skills and anxiety and academic motivation of nursing students in Tehran. Electron Physician. 2017 Jan 25;9(1):3678-3684. doi: 10.19082/3678. PMID: 28243424

11. Choi DW, Chun SY, Lee SA, Han KT, Park EC. Association between Sleep Duration and Perceived Stress: Salaried Worker in Circumstances of High Workload. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Apr 19;15(4):796. doi: 10.3390/ijerph15040796. PMID: 29671770

12. Molla Jafar H, Salabifard S, Mousavi SM, Sobhani Z. The Effectiveness of Group Training of CBT-Based Stress Management on Anxiety, Psychological Hardiness and General Self-Efficacy Among University Students. Glob J Health Sci. 2015 Sep 28;8(6):47-54. doi: 10.5539/gjhs.v8n6p47. PMID: 26755483

13. Lopresti AL, Smith SJ, Malvi H, Kodgule R. An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Medicine (Baltimore). 2019 Sep;98(37):e17186. doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000017186. PMID: 31517876

14. Park HJ, Kim HY, Yoon KH, Kim KS, Shim I. The Effects of Astragalus Membranaceus on Repeated Restraint Stress-induced Biochemical and Behavioral Responses. Korean J Physiol Pharmacol. 2009 Aug;13(4):315-9. doi: 10.4196/kjpp.2009.13.4.315. Epub 2009 Aug 31. PMID: 19885016

15. Murck H, Lehr L, Hahn J, Braunisch MC, Jezova D, Zavorotnyy M. Adjunct Therapy With Glycyrrhiza Glabra Rapidly Improves Outcome in Depression-A Pilot Study to Support 11-Beta-Hydroxysteroid Dehydrogenase Type 2 Inhibition as a New Target. Front Psychiatry. 2020 Dec 10;11:605949. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.605949. PMID: 33362613

16. Szczuka D, Nowak A, Zakłos-Szyda M, Kochan E, Szymańska G, Motyl I, Blasiak J. American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium L.) as a Source of Bioactive Phytochemicals with Pro-Health Properties. Nutrients. 2019 May 9;11(5):1041. doi: 10.3390/nu11051041. PMID: 31075951


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