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I'm Stressed, I Can Feel It In My Stomach

Updated: Sep 19, 2018

Photo by Pete Linforth at

Have you ever been nervous? Did you have a funny feeling in your stomach or maybe you said that you have butterflies in your stomach? Of course you have. Everyone has. Why do we feel something in our gut when we feel stressed, nervous or anxious? It is because there is a connection between our gut and our brain.

The Gut-Brain Connection

This gut-brain connection is actually more than an elusive ephemeral concept or an indirect connection. It is actually anatomical, meaning we are made this way. The physical connection between our gut and our brain is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve and it is also the longest cranial nerve. It actually goes from the brain to the abdomen. It is a mixed nerve that performs many different functions and plays a role in the Parasympathetic Nervous System. [1]

The Cranial Nerves including the vagus nerve (X) [1]

The vagus nerve also helps to connect the Central Nervous System (CNS) to the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). [2] The ENS is often referred to as our second brain. [3] There has actually been a number of books written about our second brain. It is also important to realize that there is bidirectional flow of information between the CNS and ENS. [2] This connection explains why our anxious and nervous thoughts make our stomachs feel funny too.

Is There A Gut-Adrenal Connection?

Photo by Kat Smith from Pexels

The anxious and nervous thoughts we have are a form of stress. So, maybe there is a connection between our gut and the HPA Axis. One study decided to look at what triggered flare ups in people with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis are two of the more common forms of IBD. The study found that only perceived stress, negative mood and major life events were triggers for the flares. The use of NSAIDs (advil, tylenol, etc), antibiotics and even the presence of infection did not lead to a difference in those who had a flare up versus those who did not. [4] Studies also show that something similar occurs with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Stress can alter the Neuro-Endocrine-Immune pathways that act on the Gut-Brain Axis and the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis. Let’s break this down a little further. Stress can affect our brain/nervous system (i.e. Neuro), our hormones (i.e. Endocrine) and our immune system. These effects can alter the communication between our gut and our brain. Plus there is a connection between the bacteria, yeast, fungi, etc. in our gut (i.e. microbiota) with our gut and our brain. Stress also leads to alterations in this communication. The overall effects and alterations due to stress cause the symptom flares and exacerbations of IBS. [5]

Things that can affect HPA Axis [7]

Another study looked at the HPA Axis reaction to stress and it’s relationship to the microbiota. The study looked at mice that were germ free (i.e. no microbiota), specific pathogen free and gnotobiotic mice. The germ free mice had an exaggerated HPA stress response. The amazing thing is that this exaggerated HPA stress response was reversed with use of a Bifido strain probiotic. [6] Another study notes that the communication between the gut microbiota and the HPA Axis is also related to other systems in our body. Those other systems include our Immune System and Autonomic Nervous System. It is also related to our blood brain barrier and intestinal barrier. [7] This illustrates just how interconnected all of our body systems are. We are not made of distinct systems that operate independently of one another. Instead, we consist of a number of different systems that connect, in many ways that we don’t even understand, to yield a sum that is much greater than it’s individual parts.

Depiction of mice from referenced study. Image comes from [7]

Addressing The Microbiota

Photo by Daniel Monteiro on Unsplash

Now you are probably wondering what you should do to address your gut. The two biggest issues affecting our gut are stress and what we eat. Finding ways to manage stress can ease the load on our gut and bodies overall. It can also avoid the alterations that were found in the studies discussed above. Meditation is just one way to deal with stress but it is very effective.

Photo by Katie Smith on Unsplash

Diet is the other big issue. When referring to diet, we are referring to what you eat or your specific eating plan. This is not referring to calorie restriction in an attempt to lose weight. Eating foods that are agreeable with you will lead to less stress being placed on your body as a whole. Eating real whole foods that are not processed can supply the probiotics (i.e. bacteria) your gut needs and the prebiotic fibers needed to feed the microbiota. You can also take probiotics and prebiotics in supplemental form and these can be very powerful tools in regaining health.

However, be warned that taking too much, too soon or the wrong type of probiotic and prebiotic for you can lead to worsening of your symptoms. This can also occur when changing your diet and starting to eat healthy foods. Certain foods can be problematic due to the specific issues you face, like IBD, IBS, thyroid issues, etc., and alterations in your body due to medications like antibiotics. This illustrates the fact that we are all similar but we are also all unique. If you are having any health issue, contact me and let’s begin your path back to health!

Please go to my website,, and sign up for a free 15 minute consultation to ask questions and see if we would work well together or dive right in and schedule your 60 minute Initial Evaluation. The Initial Evaluation and the free consultation can be performed in person or via phone/skype. I look forward to hearing from you and working together to accomplish your goals.


This article is for educational use only. Nothing contained in this article should be considered, or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This article does not constitute the practice of any medical, nursing or other professional health care advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions regarding personal health or medical conditions. Never disregard, avoid or delay in obtaining medical advice from your doctor or other qualified health care provider because of something you have read in this article. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, you should contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and are experiencing a medical emergency, you should dial 911 or call for emergency medical help on the nearest telephone.


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