It’s not just what you eat that affects your digestive health. It’s how you live.

Emily Wyckoff, PhD, a health psychology fellow with Hartford Hospital’s Digestive Health Center, said quality of life components such as sleep, exercise, mental health and social support all play roles in your gut health.

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Social support

Mental health in general affects a person’s immune and nervous systems, Wyckoff said.

“Research shows that people who have a good social support system have a stronger immune system, so – for example – they respond better to cancer treatment and their wounds heal faster,” she said. “And the opposite, those who have few or superficial social connections as opposed to deep and meaningful ones, that’s not good for their immune function or nervous system.”

She noted that a patient can present with digestive issues, and “increasingly, GI doctors are taking a biological-psychological-social approach to treatment. So many things play into your gut health. So they will explore, do you have a history of trauma, are you under an unusual amount of stress.”

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A 2011 study published in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology found that exposure to stress results in alterations of the brain-gut axis. Common gastrointestinal symptoms due to stress are heartburn, indigestion, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, constipation and associated lower abdominal pain.


A number of existing studies found that the relationship between sleep and gut health may be reciprocal. Basically, a lack of sleep contributes to stress, which can throw off the balance of your gut microbiome. Your gut microbiome is made up of trillions of bacteria, fungi and other microbes. It is an important player in your overall health because it helps control digestion and benefits your immune system.


Numerous studies point to exercise enhancing the number of beneficial microbial species, enriching the microflora diversity, and improving the development of commensal bacteria.

“The larger picture is that your gut health is part of your overall health,” Wyckoff said. “Our mental health has lots of effects on the rest of our bodies. Sometimes people are told their gut issues are “all in their head” and it’s much more complicated than that. My job is to help them get to where they want to be.”