Is stress eating stressing your gut?

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By The Gut Health Doctor Team

Dr Megan Rossi in a lab looking through a microscope

The impact of stress on your gut

Firstly, stress in general affects the gut because the gut and the brain are connected through hundreds of millions of nerves, known as the enteric nervous system. This often means that what’s going on in our brain can influence what’s going on in our gut.

Those who struggle with anxiety, stress and depression may notice changes to their digestion when they experience these emotions. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline can slow down the digestive process. This can lead to constipation or cause spasms, which may lead to diarrhoea.

The foods that we turn to when we’re stressed are also culprits for stressing the gut.

Illustration of a women and arrows to show the connection between the brain and the gut

The food choices we make when stressed

Although it might sound cliché, when we’re stressed we’re more likely to reach for something comforting rather than a nutrient-dense meal. A recent study published in the Health Psychology Review found that we are more inclined to eat ultra-processed and less balanced meals when stressed.

This may be attributable to the convenience of these foods. Come on, who really wants to go home and whip up a homemade meal after a difficult day in the office? But, also, because of the feel-good chemicals that we can get from eating these foods. Serotonin, known as our happy hormone, releases when we eat carbohydrates. Highly palatable foods, such as chocolate, have been shown to release dopamine: a neurotransmitter involved in regulating pleasure and rewards in the brain.

So again, there are no ‘bad’ foods but the problem arises if we are filling up on ultra-processed foods when we’re stressed as we are therefore less likely to hit 30 plant points a week or achieve the recommended 30g of fibre per day (which remember comes from whole plants). This can impact our overall health (physical and mental) in the long run as it impacts the diversity of our microbiome.

Our gut microbiome can influence our mood

Gut dysbiosis describes an imbalance in gut bacteria and is associated with an unfavourable change in metabolism and cravings, as well as immune function and health. We also know that the composition of our microbiome can influence mood. One study published in the Annals of General Psychiatry found that depressive symptoms could be improved with a specific probiotic (more on that coming soon — remember not all are created equal despite marketing claims), highlighting the link between mood and our microbiome. Another study published in 2017 in Psychosomatic Medicine, which is the official journal of the American Psychosomatic Society, also highlighted that the gut microbiome can actually influence the way we respond to stress too.

An image to show stress management techniques


Diet and stress can influence the composition of our gut microbiome, and the gut microbiome can influence our mood and response to stress. This emphasises the importance of developing healthier coping strategies for dealing with stress and also diversifying your diet to support your mood. Your brain and gut will thank you!

The next time you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, try other coping mechanisms, for example: calling a friend, practicing breath-work, taking that frustration out on exercise, having a bath or trying meditation. For more practical 5-minute science-backed strategies, check out page 116 and 117 of Dr Megan Rossi’s latest book, ‘Eat More, Live Well’.

Using food to de-stress every now and then is not going to have massive implications on your health, but if you find yourself using food to cope with difficult emotions and the strategies above don’t cut it, you may benefit from personalised dietetic and psychological support. With lots of experience in this area, The Gut Health Clinic team have evidence-based and empathetic strategies to support.


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