Your Teenager’s Anxiety & Their Gut Health

Feb 20, 2020

Dr. Ashley Margeson, ND

Dr. Ashley Margeson, ND


Have you ever felt “butterflies” in your stomach? How about “feeling nauseous” in certain situations? Maybe you’ve been diagnosed and/or you know that your stress in your life is effects your digestive tract (hello constipation or diarrhea!). Well, we use these expressions for a reason. The digestive tract is extremely sensitive to emotion. Angry, anxiety, stress, sadness … yup, all of these feeling can trigger symptoms in your gut.

Given the foods that we eat, what is available in our school system for nutrition (I’ve got a number of thoughts on this #daughterofateacher) and whether or not your teenager has gotten up in time to eat a breakfast; let alone what they’re actually consuming – it can be easy to dismiss an upset stomach as something that they’ve eaten. But an upset or sore stomach can actually be a sign of a much deeper issue at play.

See, the brain has a direct effect on the stomach. Smelling food cooking or thinking about your favourite meal can release the stomach’s juices long before food actually gets there. And this connection truly goes both ways. This is where things can get complicated, because someone’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress and depression.

When we consume foods we rely on a variety of mechanisms to help us digest and absorb the nutrition from that food. From the juices of our stomach to the micro biome of our intestines, to how fast or slow food moves through our system (known as peristalsis), we’ve got a lot of factors at play. Once we know this (thank you research) it can be a lot easier to understand why you might feel nauseated before giving a presentation, or get cramps during a time of higher stress. 

But here’s the thing! It’s not “all in your head”. And if your teenager gets told to “just push through” it can be difficult to understand the root of their symptoms. The psychosocial factors of stress, anxiety, depression and worry can influence the actual physiologist of the gut. Different strains of bacteria grow at different speeds, inflammation can get higher, and absorption of crucial nutrients can lessen. With all this at play, there is a higher risk for infection, catching something, or not being able to change the routine you’ve found.

As someone who experienced a lot of worry as a teenager, it wasn’t until I was studying that I truly started to understand why my body seemed to pick up on stress better than my brain. It wasn’t that I couldn’t realize it myself, it was that my gut was more acutely aware. And then when I started to dive into the research I found that study after study was finding that people who tried psychologically based approaches to their digestive issues had a far greater improvement in their digestive symptoms compared with patients who received only conventional medical treatment.

But here’s the thing; I’m not saying conventional medical treatment isn’t good. It’s extremely effective of treating the symptoms of heartburn, abdominal cramps, loose stools or constipation – but I’m asking whether we can take it one step further to understand why those symptoms are appearing… and if we can give our teenagers (and our next generation of leaders) a head start in taking control of their health. Because their health should work for them… not against them


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