How Emotions Impact Your Digestion

I can’t be the only one who has had to run to the bathroom because I was nervous. Has this happened to you? Please tell me I’m not alone.

Maybe you’ve felt nauseated before a big presentation at work. Or maybe a stressful event in your life has left you doubled over in pain.

I can’t be the only one who has had to run to the bathroom because I was nervous. Has this happened to you? Please tell me I’m not alone.

Maybe you’ve felt nauseated before a big presentation at work. Or maybe a stressful event in your life has left you doubled over in pain.

There’s a reason we say horrible events are “gut-wrenching” or someone gives you “butterflies in your stomach” or some event makes you ‘nauseated’: Emotions are directly tied to our gastrointestinal tract.

Why does our digestive system seem to betray us when any kind of emotion hits?

Maybe your body decides to hold onto it’s contents just a little too long, and now you’re backed up and really uncomfortable? This is common with traveling.

Whether it’s heart burn, excess gas, a generalized upset stomach, constipation or going too frequently, if emotions are a part of the cause, there’s a few things you can do to help regulate what’s happening.

Digestion starts in the brain

When we start thinking about eating, it sets off a cascade of events that leads to an increase in stomach acid, which triggers other enzymes and cofactors needed to break down the food.

When in reference to stress and bowel habits, most analogies are about a saber-toothed tiger running towards us with the intent to make us its next meal. That’s a stressful situation for sure. In cases like this, our bowels will try to evacuate as quickly as possible in order to direct energy to the organs necessary to make the escape possible.

But there aren’t saber-toothed tigers anymore. Now we are mostly running away from perceived stressors. Things that are not life-threatening.

Here’s the thing: our body doesn’t know the difference.

Whether we are physically running away or emotionally trying to run away, the same chemical reactions and bodily reactions are happening.

Perceived and actual stressors are treated the same way by our brain and intestinal tract.

The physiology (mechanics) of what’s happening at the cellular level throughout the intestinal tract is directly impacted by what’s happening in our social life.

The full extent of how much the psychosocial affects digestion is not fully understood, but there’s no denying it’s happening.

Now what?

Telling someone to calm down or don’t be nervous rarely solves the GI distress portion of those emotions. We need tactical steps to reduce stress in the moment. We need a reliable cheat sheet of sorts. Control and limit stress, and you will positively alter your digestion.



Daily 5-minute sessions of deliberate breath work have been shown to improve mood better than a 5-minute meditation. If you’re in a stress-filled state, this is something you can do anywhere at any time. Nobody even has to know you’re doing it.

Try the physiological sigh, or cyclical sighing, to lower blood pressure, as well as decrease anxiety and stress.  This is done by taking 2-3 short inhales, followed by a long exhale. If you’ve ever seen a dog or baby right before they settle in to go to sleep, this is what they are doing naturally.

Go ahead try it. I bet you feel a little better after a few rounds.

Close your eyes

This is a strategy I use when I’m getting worked up about…well anything. I know I shouldn’t have to say (type) this but please don’t do this when you’re driving. This works because closing my eyes gives my body a break from visual input. Our eyes are constantly scanning our environment for predators. Once again, it’s not a saber toothed tiger, but it’s social media, the news, and the world in general these days. Tuning out what’s in our visual field and focusing in on how you feel in your body for just a few moments allows your body time to slow down, recalibrate and decompress.


Adequately nourishing your nervous system with water and electrolytes helps keep all the synapses firing effectively and efficiently.  In a study completed on the effects of hydration on mood, there were negative effects for “sleep/wake moods as well as calmness, satisfaction and positive emotions.” Hydration impacts every cell, organ, and system in the human body. The problem I see frequently is the thought that hydration solely equates to water intake. True hydration includes a delicate balance of electrolytes, too. Each person has their own individual needs for hydration, so you’ll need to experiment a bit to find your ideal balance. That balance will change daily depending upon weather, sleep, food, activity level and alcohol intake

Pro Tip: 

Do you get constipated when you travel? Sometimes travel means sitting in a car or on an airplane for extended periods of time. Decreased movement can cause your bowel movements to slow down. Getting up and moving around every 30-60 minutes for a few minutes can help encourage healthy transit times. Also, try focusing on hydration with electrolytes like LMNT. Water alone may not be enough.

Whether you are barely making it to the bathroom or can’t seem to make it out of the bathroom, your emotions directly impact your how your body digests food. Try the strategies above (breathe, close your eyes, and hydrate) to combat some of the effects and see how you feel in a few minutes.

I’d be willing to bet you’re doing at least a little bit better!

Our emotions are a direct reflection of our gut health. Gut health is also influenced by emotions.We must address both.


Gut-Brain Connection

Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal

Effects of Changes in Water Intake on Mood of High and Low Drinkers