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When the brain causes stomach pain

Stress, Gut-Brain-Axis, Depression, Anxiets

Image by Wolfgang ClaussenPixabay 

We all know that stinging in the stomach that we get before a presentation, or the butterflies in the tummy when we are nervous before a date. We feel the stress in the stomach, but the signal that causes the tension is sent by the brain. When internal pressure becomes chronic, it can affect gut health: stomach problems are a major symptom of depression and anxiety.

The gut has its own nervous system: the enteric nervous system. It controls the peristaltic for digestion and the movement of bowel contents. Moreover, the enteric nervous system is connected to the brain via a network of nerve cells, with the vagus nerve being the most prominent. The connection between the tummy and the head is called gut-brain-axis.

The neurons of the vagus nerve can be understood as a highway on which signals are transported between brain and gut. These signals keep the brain up to date about conditions in the heart, lungs, liver, and stomach. This way, the head for instance knowns about the acid content of the stomach or our heart rate.  

Information can be sent in both direction via this highway made of nerve cells. Signals from the brain lead to enzyme and stomach acid secretion, when these substances are needed for digestion, on the other hand the heart rate can be regulated as well. These are all useful functions in our everyday life, but the enteric nervous system also reacts to stress hormones.

Cortisol is secreted in stressful situations and is meant to trigger fight or flight reactions in the body. But the stress hormone also increases the excretion of stomach acid, which, if it is present in high concentrations, can cause irritations in the stomach. If excessive secretion occurs continuously, this can lead to stomachache, reflux problems, or even ulcers

In addition, internal tension can cause the muscles that surround our intestinal organs to tighten. Similar to tension in the shoulders, we can feel the tension in the intestinal muscles. Stress also increases the sensation of pain, which makes even small gas bubbles or muscle tension in the intestines very painful for some people

Gut problems are among the most common symptoms of depression and anxiety. The manifestation of the mental state can vary from reflux or diarrhea to irritable bowel syndrome or inflammation, as seen in Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

As mental problems can cause symptoms in the intestine, positive stimulation of the psyche can be a relieve for those affected. Deep breathing, as is part in yoga, mindfulness, and meditation has positive effects on the vagus nerve and thereby reduce gut symptoms.

Yoga, Mindfulness, Stress relief, Health

Special hypnotic meditation has proven to be helpful in certain psycho-somatic conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome. It sounds strange and is not comparable with hypnosis shows on television. The technique is more like a guided meditation.

In addition, the direct focus on the information highway has proven useful in treating the cause of bowel problems. Stimulating the vagus nerve with electrical pulses has been shown to be effective in approximately fifty percent of patients with depression, for whom any previous treatment has failed.

Sometimes it is good to listen to a gut feeling. Especially when the stomach tells us to identify stressors in our life and relieve some tension. Adjusting your lifestyle, e.g. by meditating regularly, can have a positive impact. Otherwise, it is advisable to seek professional help in order to feel lighter in your head and in your stomach once more.


Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus nerve as modulator of the brain–gut axis in psychiatric and inflammatory disorders. Frontiers in psychiatry9, 44. Author Dr. Rebecca Cherry, viewed 31.10.2020


Published by Katrin Heidemeyer

Katrin Heidemeyer ist Doktorandin im Bereich Biochemie an der Wageningen University and Research. Durch ihre Arbeit möchte sie das Wissen über die Spezifität von Hormon-Signalen in Pflanzen erweitern. Da ihre Interessen über Pflanzenbiologie hinausreichen, schreibt sie in ihrer Freizeit über diverse Themen. Von Ernährung zu Psychologie, der Neugierde sind keine Grenzen gesetzt.

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