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How does stress affect your gut?

Laura Harcourt

Written byLaura Harcourt

Female footballer celebrating after scoring a goal. Blue football kit
Uncover the connection between stress and stomach pain. Learn how stress can lead to stomach cramps, constipation, IBS, and acid reflux.
Everyone experiences stress throughout their lives, and we’ve certainly all experienced that feeling of butterflies in our stomachs at times when we feel really stressed out. But, as it turns out, stress can really make your stomach churn and cause more than just butterflies.

There are several ways that stress can leave your stomach feeling not quite right. Here, we’ll discuss how and why stress affects your gut, plus the steps you can take to look after your tummy and help protect it from the effects of stress.

Why does stress affect your stomach?

Stress and stomach cramps often go hand in hand and some experts believe that those uncomfortable pains or fluttering butterflies in your stomach happen due to a connection between your brain and your gut.1

Researchers believe there is a two-way communication pathway between your brain and your stomach, known as the 'gut-brain axis'.1  This means that your stomach and mind are connected and worry, stress and anxiety can possibly all influence your gut and digestive system, and an unsettled stomach can affect your emotions too.1

Some research conducted in India on a study involving 50 patients found that around 44% of those with IBS were more likely to experience anxiety and depression too thanks to dysbiosis – the disturbance of gut microbiota by IBS.2,3

What are the effects of stress on your gut?

Stress has a variety of symptoms, like headaches, difficulty concentrating, anxiety and even trouble sleeping.4  Stress can really affect your stomach too, by causing stomach cramps, acid reflux and more.5

For some, stress can slow digestion down, which in turn leads to constipation, stomach pain and bloating. But, for others, stress can speed up digestion leading to diarrhoea and more regular toilet trips.

If you are experience these symptoms, it is important to speak with your GP to determine if the cause is stress or another issue.
When you’re feeling stressed, you may experience stomach issues like: 
  • constipation 
  • stomach cramps 
  • diarrhoea 
  • bloating 
  • indigestion 
  • heartburn
  • increased or decreased appetite 
Stress can also make existing stomach problems like IBS, stomach ulcers and inflammatory bowel conditions, like Crohn’s, worse.3,8

IBS and stress

IBS is a common condition that affects many people worldwide and while its exact cause is unknown, research has shown that it can go hand-in-hand with stress.9

Researchers now believe that IBS is an irritable bowel and an irritable brain condition, due to their incredibly close connection.10 Other research into the topic shows that stress can trigger IBS symptoms and your IBS symptoms can make you feel stressed.11

Unfortunately, this also means that it can be a bit of a vicious cycle.7

IBS can be incredibly frustrating, as many will experience recurring and persistent symptoms like stomach pain or cramps, bloating, and heightened digestive sensitivity.9 But everyone experiences these symptoms differently; some may have diarrhoea, some may have constipation, and others may experience both.9

Always check in with your GP if you think you might have IBS. 

How to help stress stomach pain

We know now that our brains and our stomachs are connected, so for most stress-related stomach aches and pains, you should work on lowering your stress levels as well as seeking ways to calm your stomach.

Whilst you should always speak to your GP if you’re experiencing uncomfortable stomach pain for long periods of time, there are stress management techniques and home remedies that you can try to help ease the discomfort.

1. Try meditation

Mindfulness and meditation are methods of relaxation that have long been known to be great for reducing stress.12  They help you relax by slowing down your heart rate and reducing your blood pressure, but in the longer term, they can actually improve your energy and concentration.12

Why not tune in to a guided meditation on YouTube, and give it a go for yourself?

2. Practice breathing techniques

Like meditation and mindfulness, there are specific breathing techniques that many recommend to help ease feelings of stress and anxiety.

Try this calming breathing exercise next time you feel stressed or anxious:13
  • make yourself as comfortable as possible, sitting or standing, and loosen any tight clothing
  • keep your feet hip-width apart 
  • take a breath in from your nose and let it flow into your stomach 
  • try counting from 1 to 5, but don’t worry if you can’t hold it until 5 
  • let the breath go, breathing out from your mouth whilst counting from 1 to 5 
  • repeat this for around 5 minutes
The great thing is that this can be done anywhere at any time and takes just a few minutes.

3. Eat a healthy, balanced diet

While there is nothing wrong with occasionally demolishing a small tub of ice cream when you feel under pressure, try to eat a healthy and more balanced diet when you feel stressed.

Eating a balanced diet is important for keeping your body and mind healthy, particularly your stomach. Making sure you eat a variety of healthy foods helps to keep your gut microbiome in check and supports the good bacteria that thrive there.14

4. Drink herbal tea

Many herbal teas are believed to have potential benefits for your health and wellbeing, from peppermint to chamomile.

Ginger tea in particular has been shown to help your stomach.15,16 You can even whip up a batch of ginger tea yourself as it is really easy to make. Check out our ginger tea recipe for a quick step-by-step guide.

Ginger in many formats can possibly help with an upset stomach, so why not snack on a ginger biscuit if tea isn’t quite your thing?

5. Do some light exercise

Exercise is not only great for your body but also for your mind. Recent studies have shown links between cardiovascular exercise and lower cortisol levels, a reduced heart rate, reduced feelings of anxiety, and lower blood pressure.17

Get outside and go for a walk or do a quick yoga session in your living room, your brain and your gut will thank you.

6. Grab a hot water bottle

Filling up a hot water bottle and placing it on your tummy when you have uncomfortable cramps can really help. The heat helps to relax your stomach muscles and ease any discomfort – this is a great hack for period pain too!18,19

The final say

Stress has many physical and mental effects on your health and can leave your stomach in knots. Stress can cause constipation, diarrhoea, stomach pain and more, whilst also triggering symptoms of other conditions like IBS.

Finding ways to tackle stress is important when it comes to easing stress-related stomach pain, so try to make time for yourself and practice stress management techniques.

If your stomach pain is affecting your day-to-day life and lasts for long periods of time, it is important that you seek help from your GP. They’ll be able to offer you tailored advice, treatment and help to suit your needs.


1. Mayer EA, Nance K, Chen S. The Gut–Brain Axis. Annual Review of Medicine [Internet]. 2022 Jan 27 [cited 2023 Nov 2];73(1):439–53. Available from:
2. ‌Canakis A, Mohammad H, H. Christian Weber. Irritable bowel syndrome and gut microbiota. Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Obesity [Internet]. 2020 Feb 1 [cited 2023 Nov 2];27(1):28–35. Available from:
3. ‌Banerjee A, Sujit Sarkhel, Sarkar R, Gopal Krishna Dhali. Anxiety and Depression in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine [Internet]. 2017 Nov 1 [cited 2023 Nov 2];39(6):741–5. Available from:
4. NHS Choices. Dealing with stress [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2023 Nov 2]. Available from:
5. NHS Choices. Stress [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2023 Nov 2]. Available from:
6. NHS Choices. 5 lifestyle tips for a healthy tummy [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2023 Nov 2]. Available from:
7. Mertz H. Stress and the Gut [Internet]. 2017. Available from:
8. Sun Y, Lü L, Xie R, Wang B, Jiang K, Cao H. Stress Triggers Flare of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Children and Adults. Frontiers in Pediatrics [Internet]. 2019 Oct 24 [cited 2023 Nov 2];7. Available from:
9. NHS Choices. What is IBS? - Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2023 Nov 2]. Available from:
10. Qin H, Chung Wah Cheng, Tang X, Bian Z. Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndrome. World Journal of Gastroenterology [Internet]. 2014 Jan 1 [cited 2023 Nov 3];20(39):14126–6. Available from:
11. Community Editorial. The Vicious Circle - IBS and Stress [Internet]. Bladder & Bowel Community. 2022 [cited 2023 Nov 3]. Available from:
12. NHS Choices. Mindfulness [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2023 Nov 6]. Available from:
13. NHS Choices. Breathing exercises for stress [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2023 Nov 3]. Available from:
14. Zhang P. Influence of Foods and Nutrition on the Gut Microbiome and Implications for Intestinal Health. International Journal of Molecular Sciences [Internet]. 2022 Aug 24 [cited 2023 Nov 6];23(17):9588–8. Available from:
15. Mehrnaz Nikkhah Bodagh, Maleki I, Azita Hekmatdoost. Ginger in gastrointestinal disorders: A systematic review of clinical trials. Food Science and Nutrition [Internet]. 2018 Nov 5 [cited 2023 Nov 3];7(1):96–108. Available from:
16. Lete I, José Antonio Allué. The Effectiveness of Ginger in the Prevention of Nausea and Vomiting during Pregnancy and Chemotherapy. Integrative medicine insights [Internet]. 2016 Jan 1 [cited 2023 Nov 3];11:IMI.S36273–3. Available from:
17. Franklin BA, Akash Rusia, Haskin-Popp C, Tawney A. Chronic Stress, Exercise and Cardiovascular Disease: Placing the Benefits and Risks of Physical Activity into Perspective. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health [Internet]. 2021 Sep 21 [cited 2023 Nov 3];18(18):9922–2. Available from:
18. Nagashima Y, Michihito Igaki, Suzuki A, Tsuchiya S, Yamazaki Y, Hishinuma M, et al. Application of a Heat- and Steam-Generating Sheet Increases Peripheral Blood Flow and Induces Parasympathetic Predominance. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine [Internet]. 2011 Jan 1 [cited 2023 Nov 6];2011:1–13. Available from:
19. NHS Choices. Period pain [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2023 Nov 6]. Available from:

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