Can emotions affect gut health?

By Melody Khorrami, PharmD, RPh, INHC

 Mastering the art of processing emotions and stress management is one of the most profound learnings in personal development, and an important part of overall wellness. Experiencing stress and negative emotions are a part of the human experience, but if they are not processed in a healthy manner they can lead to manifestations of physical health problems.

Emotions are defined as the mental and physical states that are created in response to internal or external stimuli. They can arise from thoughts, or visual or auditory experiences. The human response to these stimuli is part of our natural survival mechanism.

The gut-brain connection is revolutionizing our understanding of what the trillions of bacteria, both good and bad, are doing in the human body in relation to human emotions and some health conditions. As research in the gut microbiome space increases, studies have revealed that emotions may contribute to dysbiosis. Negative emotions such as anxiety can play a major role in the functioning of the gut and potentially lead to a disruption of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the process our bodies use to maintain the stable conditions necessary for our survival. 

Gut dysbiosis itself can generate inflammation and has been linked to negative emotional states that may lead to chronic diseases. Consequently, understanding the gene-emotions-gut microbiota interaction will be a critical area of microbiome research. Physicians can start to consider the emotional factors that may be affecting disease progression and the severity of outcomes. The analysis of these factors and their impact should be looked at through the lens of personalized medicine and genomic-based nutrition strategies

There is an association between certain stressful life events, and the onset or exacerbation of symptoms related to common digestive system conditions. These include functional gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and peptic ulcer disease.  

The gut microbiota  can help regulate emotions because it communicates with the central nervous system, and certain gut bacteria are involved in synthesizing neurotransmitters. The vagal nerve drives the gut-brain communication. Negative emotions in the body chronically activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis also known as the HPA axis, the bodies response to stress. This process in turn elevates cortisol levels. These high levels of cortisol contribute to dysbiosis by promoting bacterial growth of bad pathogens.

Changes to the gut microbiota and the imbalance of microbial diversity are related to immune-mediated diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease.

Being in a state of dysbiosis weakens the gut barrier which allows pathogens to enter easier and activates inflammation in the body which is linked to health conditions such as certain gastrointestinal diseases. Negative emotions alongside lifestyle factors like unhealthy eating can produce this dysbiosis. The exact pathophysiology of this phenomenon is not well understood and further research is needed to better understand the association.

The American Journal of Gastroenterology acknowledges the advances in the understanding of the brain-gut-microbiome axis, and has a conditional recommendation to utilize gut-directed psychotherapies to treat irritable bowel symptoms. Gut-directed psychotherapies include, relaxation techniques, cognitive reframing of unhelpful thoughts, and behavioral changes. These have been well-tested as supplementary measures to medical therapies for patients with irritable bowel syndrome.

Finding the right tools to incorporate relaxation techniques and for processing stressful experiences is important. Working with a licensed therapist can be helpful in addressing patterns of stress and identifying ways to manage emotions in a healthier way.  Emotional processing and stress is part of being a human. Be patient with yourself. Additionally, it can be helpful to create a network of trusted family and/or friends to support you. Nurturing your emotional health might just make all the difference in your gut health and reap other personal benefits! 

This article is written for informational purposes only and does not substitute medical advice from your healthcare provider. Always consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to your health regimen.

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