How Stress Affects Digestion: Anatomy & Physiology of the Digestive System

The smooth functioning of digestion depends on the action of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system, especially the parasympathetic branch, associated with relaxation and restoration. Stress activates the sympathetic side, the fight-or-flight system, which can interfere with the bowels. – Yoga as Medicine

The primary advice for healthy digestion is to effectively manage stress. In Why You Should Care About Your Digestive System, Nina Zolotow and Baxter Bell of Yoga for Healthy Aging explain that acute stress may have the following outcomes in some people.

  • Inhibit production of saliva, negatively affecting the initial breakdown of food.
  • Interfere with muscular action that moves food to the stomach.
  • Contribute to minor issues such as heartburn and nausea, and more serious problems, such as acid reflux and ulcers.
  • Interfere with absorption into the circulatory system.
  • Decrease effectiveness of large intestine, resulting in constipation or diarrhea.
  • Inhibit release of bile from the gallbladder into the small intestine, impacting ability to digest fats.
  • May make the pancreas more susceptible to diseases.
  • Affect the diversity of the gut microbiome, negatively impacting digestion and overall health.