Have you been feeling bloated?  Have you had more stomach cramps and other stomach issues than usual?

Your gastrointestinal system may be a victim of COVID-19 stress.

In some people, stress slows down digestion, causing bloating, pain and constipation, while in others it speeds it up, causing diarrhea and frequent trips to the loo. Some people lose their appetite completely.

No matter the stressor, it’s important to consider the impact of stress on your health and well-being. After all, too much stress can take a mental and physical toll on your body, this includes wreaking havoc on your gut and digestion.

Why does stress and anxiety cause stomach pain or GI discomfort?

When a person is stressed, the adrenal glands make and release the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream. This causes the fight-or-flight response, and can also trigger abdominal discomfort, stomach cramps, constipation, diarrhea, nausea and other symptoms.

It also causes the body to produce extra levels of stomach acid. That acidity causes the lining of the esophagus to become irritated, and this can lead to stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting, and in severe cases, stress-induced ulcers.

People experiencing chronic stress may also eat more or eat unhealthy foods, smoke, or drink more alcohol or coffee than normal. These new habits can also cause added stomach or GI discomfort.

The effect stress has on your gut depends on the length of time you’re experiencing stress:

Short-term stress can cause you to lose your appetite and your digestion to slow down.

Long-term stress can trigger gastrointestinal (GI) issues, like constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, or an upset stomach.

Chronic stress over extended periods of time may lead to more serious issues, like irritable bowel syndrome and other GI disorders.

One of the keys to better digestion is regular stress management. Reducing stress can lower inflammation in the gut, ease GI distress, and keep you nourished, since your body can focus on absorbing the nutrients you need.

If you find your anxiety and  stress levels are affecting your digestion, below you’ll find tips to help improve your gut.

Get physical

Exercise is a well-known tension reducer and can help relieve symptoms. But take care to increase exercise slowly and assess your body’s tolerance to this as you do, as strenuous, high-impact exercises might induce GERD symptoms.To boost and support digestion, make sure you’re getting enough physical activity on a consistent basis, like walking and running.

Practice yoga

Exercises like Hatha or Iyengar yoga, which focus on alignment and posture, may also alleviate gastrointestinal symptoms and improve stress outcomes.

Try mindful meditation

Scientific  research also suggests that a mindful meditation practice, where you develop an increased awareness of your daily life, may help.

Meditation along with deep breathing techniques may lower inflammation, a marker of stress in the body. In turn, this may relieve an overstressed digestive system.

So Breathe… 

Become a better breather. Stress can cause shallow breathing, which means that your body won’t get enough oxygen to fully relax. Learn to breathe more slowly and deeply from your abdomen. One way to do this is to imagine that you have a small beach ball behind your belly button, which you slowly inflate and deflate.

Before your next meal, try sitting up straight away from distractions, and take 2 to 4 rounds of deep breathing. Breathing in for a 4-count, holding for 4, and exhaling for a 4-count.

Do this each time you sit down to enjoy a meal to help your body relax and get ready for digestion (i.e. rest and digest mode).

Use grounding techniques

Use grounding techniques to remain present focused, such as body scanning to release physical tension in target areas like the shoulders, hands and feet.

Eat prebiotics and probiotics

When it comes to your diet, reach for foods that promote good gut bacteria, like prebiotics and probiotics.

Fruits and vegetables with inulin, like asparagus, banana, garlic, and onions, contain prebiotics. Fermented foods, like kefir, kimchi, kombucha, natto, sauerkraut, tempeh, and yogurt all contain probiotics.

Prebiotics and probiotics can alter the bacteria makeup in the gut microbiome and create the ideal environment for more good bacteria to flourish and support digestion.

Drink enough water

Water helps keep things moving in your gut so you stay regular. Pay attention to your body when you’re thirsty, and have a glass of water, not soda. Carbonation can cause stomach pain because the fizz can lead to gas.

Kick the smoking habit

If you reach for a cigarette when your stress levels are on the rise, stop. Smoking can increase your risk of developing peptic ulcers, GI diseases, and related cancers.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Watch your ‘self-talk’. Much of our anxiety is self-induced, meaning that we often get ourselves wound up worrying about worst-case scenarios or blowing small incidents out of proportion. And stop watching those Covid-19 stats so obsessively!

Monitor your negative thoughts to see how often you fret about small things. If you find yourself obsessing, try to substitute a negative thought with a positive, but realistic one. For example, instead of thinking, “I know something will go wrong during my presentation”, tell yourself, “No matter what happens, I can handle it.”

Become a better time manager. Running late causes anxiety. Try keeping a time management log for a week to get a better idea of how much time various tasks actually take, and then learn to prioritize them so that you’re getting the most important things done first. A good rule of thumb is to give yourself 20% more time than you think you need to do the task.

Learn to say no

Thinking you can ‘do it all’ creates unnecessary pressure. Learn how to set boundaries and  firmly turn down additional responsibilities that you don’t have the extra time or energy for. A simple, “I’d love to help you out, but I’m booked up,” will usually do in most cases.

Take time out for yourself

Our minds and bodies require a certain amount of variety, or else our overcharged nervous systems will keep speeding right into the next day. Try to take at least one day off each week to do something you really enjoy, whatever that may be. Remember to include things like getting enough sleep, having a leisurely bath, listening to music, playing with a pet, having conversations with friends, or anything that gives you pleasure.

Have a good belly laugh. Laughter is a natural stress reliever that helps to lower blood pressure, slow your heart and breathing rate, and relax your muscles. Watch comedies, have a laugh with a friend, and make an effort to look on the lighter side of life.

Choose foods carefully

Some foods can increase your stress level while others can help reduce it. Generally, fatty, sugary, and/or processed foods seem to increase stress in most people while a TLC – Diet of lean meat, fresh fruits and vegetables seem to decrease stress. Choose foods wisely and in addition to reducing stress, your body will love you for it!

So to reduce those tummy woes, slow down, worry less, breathe deeply and laugh.