The connection between digestive health and mental well-being

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated March 13, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

As research continues in the mental health field, scientists have looked at the mind-body connection in further detail. 

As research continues in the mental health field, scientists have looked at the mind-body connection in further detail to understand how mental and physical health can be connected. As a result, studies have found a connection between digestive system issues and mental health. If you're living with gastrointestinal (GI) challenges and suspect it might relate to feelings of anxiety and depression, it may be valuable to learn how they're linked, what the research says, and ways to cope. 

Common symptoms of digestive issues include bloating, diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain, acid reflux, and others. There are a variety of psychological factors and environmental factors that may trigger symptoms, such as high stress, depression, and anxiety. Digestive symptoms, compared with symptoms of mental health problems or mood disorders, are easier to identify. This is why understanding how the two may be linked is important.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Mental and digestive health issues can be treated together

The relationship between digestive issues and mental health

It can be common for people facing mental health concerns to have digestive issues, and the two are intimately connected. The brain is connected to the gut through nerve cells in the central nervous system and enteric nervous system. This connection is so strong that the stomach is sometimes called the "second brain."

In addition, a large body of research proves the gut-brain connection, with the following findings: 

  • People who have experienced trauma are significantly more likely to live with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other functional bowel problems or digestive issues.

  • Those who live with IBS are more likely to face depression and anxiety.

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (also called IBD—it results from a weakened immune system, according to the CDC) is also connected to a higher risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns or psychiatric disorders.

  • Anxiety and depression are both linked to a higher likelihood of GERD.

  • Heightened stress is known to raise the rate of cardiovascular disease, however, it also raises the risk of digestive issues and disorders, including IBS, IBD, stomach problems, and peptic ulcers. It may also hurt nutrient absorption.

Research shows the link between gastrointestinal tract issues and unfavorable mental health outcomes and how supporting an individual's mental health can help those who experience digestive issues and disorders. For example, psychotherapy can be a valuable addition to treating GI disorders, both in youth and adults. This gut-brain connection may be so close because the big brain that all humans have needs a large amount of energy and blood flow to function. 

How to reduce digestive issues and stress

Digestive issues do not need to rely on only conventional medical treatment or medication, by improving mental health you can improve the health of your gastrointestinal system as well. Below are a few psychological interventions to improve your brain function and gut health simultaneously. 

Take note of any potential patterns in your symptoms

Consider keeping a symptom log if you are experiencing mental and physical symptoms. Note when you experience symptoms and the circumstances around them. In time, you may notice a pattern between your physical and mental health symptoms. For example, perhaps you get acid reflux more often on days when you're stressed. 

Tracking can be helpful if you feel that the digestive symptoms you're experiencing could be connected to mental health or life stress. However, even if your mental and physical health are not connected, tracking symptoms can offer you a record to show to your GI doctor if you go in for physical treatment. 

Prioritize the reduction of stress

At times, stimuli that alleviate emotional stress also alleviate physical stress. For example, tea consumption can promote relaxation, and some teas may also help with digestion-related physical symptoms and fight inflammation. Other ways to de-stress may include but aren't limited to meditation, spending time with loved ones, laughing, reading, spending time in nature, making art, listening to music, physical activity, or journaling. 

Create a self-care toolkit for bad days

A daily routine can be beneficial for the maintenance and prevention of symptoms. Still, mental and physical health concerns often have ups and downs, even when a concern has improved or is under control. 

For example, if you live with an anxiety disorder, you may notice that your anxiety symptoms are heightened on a particular day due to external factors or another issue. The same can be true for GI tract distress. Nausea, constipation, diarrhea, and acid reflux may be worse on some days than others, which can happen for various reasons. For example, if you live with GERD, you may find it worsened by a particular food or beverage, stress, and other factors.

On high-symptom days, exercise self-kindness and compassion. While it might depend on your personality, what your doctor recommends, and what symptom(s) or condition(s) you face, specific practices or activities can be helpful when symptoms are worse than usual. Having a toolkit of self-care strategies available for when you are not feeling well can help you care for yourself. 

Pleasant distractions, a warm cup of tea, baths, breathing exercises, and relaxing activities like art or a phone call with a friend who can offer comfort may all be ways to implement self-care when your physical or mental health symptoms are heightened.

Getty/PeopleImages

Build a supportive routine

Mental health concerns like life stress, depression, and anxiety can benefit from a supportive self-care routine alongside treatments like therapy. A therapist, primary care physician, or psychiatrist can often help you find practices to add to your self-care routine. In the case of mental health, this may include tips for sleep hygiene, physical activity, medication, and tools focused on stress management.

A supportive routine may also be a crucial component in care for gastrointestinal concerns. When you work with your gastroenterologist or another medical provider, they may suggest daily habits that support you in coping with or managing your specific digestive issues. Depending on your health status and the concern you want to address, you might try sleeping in a more elevated position if you experience GERD or taking probiotics, engaging in movement via stretching, and practicing cardiovascular activity. Studies have found that yoga can also reduce stress and anxiety symptoms.

Find someone to confide in 

If you have a condition that causes digestive issues, such as Chron's, Ulcerative Colitis, IBS, or GERD, you may be able to find a support group dedicated to the condition. The same applies to mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders and depression. You may also find general support groups or support groups dedicated to more specific topics like grief. 

Another way to build your support system is to see a therapist. Therapy gives you a space to talk about mental health difficulties, which can be helpful when physical health impacts your emotional health or when other stressors are present in life. 

Many forms of psychotherapy effectively treat anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health conditions. Additionally, various forms of psychotherapy can support the management of gastrointestinal disorders and may be a helpful addition to other treatments.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Mental and digestive health issues can be treated together

Counseling options

If you're experiencing discomfort from gastrointestinal difficulties or digestive conditions, seeing your doctor is vital so they can rule out diseases, illnesses, or other serious problems that may potentially be causing your symptoms. However, if the discomfort is linked to your mental state, you may also benefit from seeing a therapist in addition to your medical appointments. 

With the rise of online therapy, many clients find that virtual counseling is more available than before and allow them to receive the support they need to cope with concerns like anxiety, depression, and stress. In addition, research has found that certain types of online therapy, like internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), are especially effective in treating long-term and chronic stress, which can be a common cause of digestive concerns. 

If you want to try remote therapy, platforms like BetterHelp offer a match-based system to connect clients with a licensed professional to meet their needs and preferences. In addition, online therapy allows you to work with a licensed therapist from the safety of your home or anywhere else with a reliable internet connection. Once you start, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions. 

Takeaway

Gut health and mental health are often closely related. If you're experiencing digestive challenges, a mental illness, or both, consider contacting a therapist for further guidance and coping suggestions. You're not alone, and a comprehensive treatment plan may help you as you seek support for your symptoms.
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