How Stress Impacts the Digestive System

Contributor: Hannah Brooks. Lesson ID: 12579

Have you felt butterflies in your stomach when you're nervous? This reaction is not as benign as butterflies; it's a natural reaction that can affect your health! Learn some stress-busting techniques!


Life Science

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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When you worry about something or are scared, do you feel different? Does your stomach bother you? Find out why!

Stress can take a toll on your body in many ways.

It can often slow down or impair the digestive system if the source of stress is unresolved. As we discussed in the previous lesson, stomach contractions are controlled by the central nervous system.

If you missed or need to review the previous lessons in this Digestive System series, find them in the right-hand sidebar under Related Lessons.

The central nervous system is a network of cells that conduct electrical impulses with instructions from the brain. When you become stressed or anxious, your body goes into "fight or flight" mode. This survival mechanism helps humans respond to new situations by either leaving the area or starting to fight by increasing hormones to trigger body responses and an increase in strength capacity.

Your body prioritizes survival over digestion, so when you enter this survival mode, signals to your digestive system slow down. This leads to a reduction in the pace of digestion, secretion of the specialized juices needed for digestion, and a back-up in the processing of waste within the intestines.

  • Have you seen commercials for yogurt designed to help you regulate digestion?

These products have probiotics, special bacteria to assist in digestion, that help reset the digestive system and speed up processing. These bacteria help balance the good bacteria with bad bacteria in the gut that can build up during slow digestion. When the bacteria are out of balance, that can cause an inability to absorb nutrients, and you can become constipated and infected with harmful bacteria. Some individuals can also experience diarrhea due to hormones released during the stress response.

These responses vary by individual, but needless to say, stress can cause you to have significant digestive interruptions!

  • Isn't it amazing that our bodies are programmed to prioritize survival without considering the impact it may have on the rest of the system?

Discuss with a parent or teacher two things you find interesting about the impact of stress on the digestive system. High school students can respond with a reflection in your notebook.

In the Got It? section, you will learn more about ways to control the level of stress in your daily life.

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