• Masarat Jilani

Why treating your anxiety is an important way of managing your digestive health

People with gut problems can often be subjected to dismissive attitudes telling them that their symptoms are “all in the head”. So why are we talking about anxiety and gut health? When people say that symptoms are in your head it can make us feel that we are not taken seriously or are being accused of making things up. And that is damaging.

Gut issues like IBS are not in your head. There are symptoms that affect your body and overall health massively. But anxiety is also a condition that doesn’t just live in the head. Anxiety can affect your heart rate, blood pressure and, yes, even your digestive system.

In fact, although anxiety may be triggered by a thought inside your head. There are thousands of electric connections between your brain and your gut. Those anxious thoughts send signals down to your gut and that can cause havoc. This connection between your gut and brain is called the gut-brain axis and it could have many effects on your overall health. Visit “What do you mean I have two brains” and “10 ways to hack the gut-brain axis” to find out more about your gut-brain axis.

5 ways anxiety can be linked to the gut

Anxiety isn’t just unique to digestive issues. Every chronic health issue could cause anxiety- and that’s because chronic illnesses affect our lives massively and we are often not taught how to deal with them. This leaves our mind to think however it likes and some of this could be quite negative. Although stress alone cannot cause IBS- stressful events can cause an IBS flare-up and anxiety management can offer relief.

1. Health anxiety

Health anxiety is sometimes called hypochondria. It is a mental health condition where there is increased time spent worrying about illnesses or diseases that it starts to take over your life. In IBS since there is an increased number of symptoms like increased mucus, abdominal pain, diarrhoea or constipation. It is very normal to worry about what these symptoms may mean and whether they are linked to a particular disease- sometimes patients will question if it is actually IBS or something more life-threatening. IBS-M in particular where people experience both diarrhoea and constipation has been linked to increased health anxiety.

2. Food phobia

When consuming food can exacerbate your symptoms, it is understandable that people can develop anxiety and fear around eating. This can lead to disordered eating as a behaviour to deal with the anxiety related to food. Avoidant/ restrictive food intake disorder has been identified as a condition where people restrict their oral intake of food due to a fear of negative consequences. People with digestive health and gut problems are particularly at high risk for this anxiety-related disorder - in particular, patients with IBS can experience this. Having this relationship with food can cause worsening symptoms. Restricted eating can also create further problems such as weight loss, malnutrition, or dependence on tube feeding.

3. Social Anxiety

Gut conditions can make you feel isolated because there can be a considerable stigma against having gut-related symptoms like constipation or diarrhea. This can understandably lead to patients developing a fear of social situations where bathrooms are not readily available, worrying about eating in public. This can lead to avoidance of social situations further and thus lead to even more isolation.

4. Stress eating

Stress eating is a known contributor to overweight and obesity. It is also a way people may deal with stresses in their life. There is little research into how stress eating may be linked to gut-related disorders. However, since stress eating is a form of disordered eating where there can be erratic eating habits this is likely to affect the gut.

5. Gut-brain axis and the gut microbiome

The gut-brain axis is a two-way communication system between the brain and the rich system of nerves that serve the gut called the enteric nervous system. This system links the emotional center of the brain with gut functions. The gut microbiome which exists within the gut also plays a huge role in the communication between the gut and the brain. This means that stress and anxiety in the brain can cause effects within the gut. Conversely, the gut can cause a change in emotions as well.

Why these stress and anxiety disorders can lead to worsening gut symptoms

One of the key ways that all these anxiety and stress conditions affect the gut is through the creation of visceral hypersensitivity. Visceral hypersensitivity is a general increase in pain sensation experiences in internal organs. It is particularly common in patients who have IBS. In this condition, an internal stimulus (like gas production, gut movements) that is normal is registered by the body as pain. So, people will experience pain as the gut goes through normal processes. Psychological factors like anxiety and stress can play a role in hypersensitivity.

How to treat anxiety to heal your gut

With so many ways that anxiety can affect your gut health, it’s pretty clear that treating your anxiety could do wonders for your gut. But, how best to do this? You cannot live a life without stress - that’s why anxiety management is key. Luckily, the Zemedy program uses an evidence-based program to tackle anxiety and heal the gut at the same time. Through six specific modules and key cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques.

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