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The Predominance of Anxiety on the Digestive System

by Harshita Parmar


Hi everyone! This article is the second installment in our "Fusion week", in which two or more broad topics in medicine are combined to create an amazing article! This article combines the topic of anxiety, with the digestive system. Read on to find out how these two topics correlate!


At some point in our life, whether it be before a presentation in school or going to the doctor for a checkup, we have experienced the feeling of getting ‘butterflies.’ In spite of it being very short-lived, the root cause of getting butterflies is the underlying feeling of anxiety. In this article, we will explore more about how the feeling of anxiety ensues as well as how it impacts the digestive system.



What is anxiety?

Anxiety can be categorized into two distinct categories: occasional anxiety and anxiety disorders. While occasional anxiety deals with feelings of nervousness regarding temporary, minor events that go away just as easily as they surface, anxiety disorders are deep-rooted fears that do not go away easily and can potentially get worse over time, impacting a person’s work, school, and personal life. Multiple causes exist which vary from experiencing stressful/ traumatic events in childhood to a history of anxiety disorders and potential physical conditions, like heart arrhythmias. Having said that, there are multiple types of anxiety disorders: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobia disorders. There are many treatment and therapy options for people who have anxiety. Although the most familiar treatment is medication (antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs), they are only effective in easing a person’s anxiety symptoms; medication is incapable of curing anxiety as a whole. Two forms of therapy that can treat anxiety are cognitive behavioral therapy (molds a person to behave, think, and act differently to ease their symptoms) and psychotherapy (talk therapy). Some of the treatments can be combined together to make it more effective for patients, depending on their ailments.



How are the different types of anxiety disorders distinct?

Generalized anxiety disorder affects 3.1% of the US population, being the most common anxiety disorder among older adults. Nevertheless, it can affect people of all ages, be it old or young. In this disorder, people experience symptoms like fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and being irritable.



Panic disorder is defined as a disorder which triggers episodes of intense fear followed by physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, and dizziness. These episodes are often sudden and unpredictable. Phobia disorders also stem from intense fear, but instead pertain to certain things/ objects that actually do not pose a danger. For example, some common phobias people have include arachnophobia (fear of spiders), acrophobia (fear of heights), and trypanophobia (fear of injections). People who experience phobias may exhibit symptoms like wanting to get away, panic, and fear.



How is the brain relevant to the digestive system?

Researchers believe the reason anxiety can ultimately affect the digestive system is because of the gut-brain connection, which is a result of the brain and gut (being the only part in the body consisting of the largest amount of nerves outside the brain with the digestive tract) sharing similar nerve connections. According to Harvard, the brain has a direct, immediate effect on the digestive tract and vice versa. Studies also demonstrate that the digestive tract is sensitive to emotion, which explains the feeling of butterflies we have: feelings like sadness, anger, anxiety, and elation can be felt in our stomach in the form of ‘butterflies’, or even nausea-like feelings. This proves the relationship between psychology and physical factors, forming psychosocial factors, which evidently conveys the fact that psychological factors, consisting of anxiety, stress, and depression, can impact the digestive tract in a rather negative way.



What effect does anxiety, in particular, have on the digestive system?

When a person starts to undergo feelings of anxiety, hormones and chemicals released by your body in response to the anxiety can penetrate through the digestive tract, usually interfering with the process of digestion. These hormones and chemicals can impact the gut flora, which are microorganisms living in the digestive tract, often aiding with digestion, and decrease antibody production as well. This chemical imbalance is the root cause of many gastrointestinal conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), GERD, and even peptic ulcers.



Feelings of anxiety cause an increase in stomach acid production and trigger the ‘flight-or-fight’ response in humans, which slows down processes in the body that are not necessary to perform at the time the flight or fight response is triggered; the reason why the process of digestion is slowed down/ interfered on. However, since anxiety disorders are more persisting as compared to flight or fight responses, the digestive tract is altered to function incorrectly, leading to the various gastrointestinal conditions listed above.



While some people develop rather chronic conditions like IBS, GERD, and peptic ulcers, some can simply experience symptoms like indigestion, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. Regardless of what people experience, these conditions/ symptoms can take a toll on a person’s life, compelling them to alter daily lifestyle habits, such as eating, for example, due to fear of having accidents, or to avoid uncomfortable feelings like indigestion and cramps.


These digestive conditions and symptoms can be eased/ treated through the implementation of habits such as exercise, yoga, stress management techniques, medication, and diet changes to avoid triggering tummy troubles and anxiety. The effect anxiety has on the digestive system should not be disregarded, because it can clearly cause complex health issues.



Thank you for reading our second article in our fusion series! if you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading this previous article for Fusion week, linked here. This article is about how pediatrics combines with neuroscience, so don't miss reading it!


If you are interested in becoming a writer or have any questions/comments about the Writing Committee, please feel free to comment down below, or email anushasoni241@gmail.com.


Until next time,

- Harshita Parmar and the Writing Committee :)




Sources:

“How to Calm an Anxious Stomach: The Brain-Gut Connection.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, 19 July 2018, https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/how-calm-anxious-stomach-brain-gut-connection

“Facts & Statistics.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, 19 September 2021, https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics


“Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, 28 July 2021, https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad


“NIMH » Anxiety Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders


“NIMH » Panic Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/panic-disorder


“Phobias | MentalHealth.gov.” Mental Health.gov, https://www.mentalhealth.gov/what-to-look-for/anxiety-disorders/phobias


Sippel, Trisha. “List of Phobias A - Z: Most Common Fears, Types of Phobias & More.” The Recovery Village, 17 August 2021, https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/mental-health/phobias/related/list-of-phobias/


“Anxiety-Stomach Link: GI Symptoms and Anxiety Disorders.” Verywell Mind, 21 April 2021, https://www.verywellmind.com/gastrointestinal-gi-symptoms-and-anxiety-disorders-2584240



Shaikh, Faiq, and Micah Abraham. “Digestive Problems and the Effects of Anxiety.” Calm Clinic, https://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/symptoms/digestive-problems


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