Stomach in knots, butterflies in your belly, or just a plain nervous stomach ache— can stress cause stomach issues? No matter how you describe it, there’s nothing fun about having a nervous stomach. But even less fun is trying to determine if an underlying anxiety issue is causing your belly ache—or worse, a serious underlying health condition.
If you’re experiencing abdominal pain that you think might be caused by stress, keep reading to learn can stress cause stomach issues?
Can Anxiety Cause Stomach and Bowel Problems?
If you’re feeling nervous and having some stomach pains, there usually isn’t anything to worry about. Gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort is among the most common physical symptoms associated with anxiety, so that knot in your stomach shouldn’t be a reason to add any extra stress to your plate.
However, if your stomach pains don’t subside after the anxieties are gone, you should consider talking to a doctor to see if you would benefit from having a consultation with a gastroenterologist—a doctor whose specialty is treating the GI tract and liver.
How Does Stress Affect Your Stomach?
Stress is your nervous system’s normal physical, emotional, and intellectual response to changes, challenges, or stressors in your environment. When you start to feel common symptoms of stress—quickening heart rate, muscle tension, stomach cramps—your body is entering fight-or-flight response mode. This physical reaction is all thanks to a hormone called cortisol.
The adrenal glands trigger a spike in cortisol production (often called the stress hormone) and release it into the bloodstream, creating the panicky sensations that you’re feeling in your stomach. And while cortisol may be responsible for the initial digestive problems, its potential to cause problems can stick around a lot longer than the stress and anxiety.
In addition to triggering abdominal discomfort, nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and constipation, elevated cortisol levels can also lead people to seek out unhealthy stress reduction techniques that only worsen the problem. Overeating, poor dietary choices, using tobacco, and problematic drinking can make chronic stress-related stomach pain more severe.
Common Symptoms of Stress-Related Digestive Problems
Distress within your digestive tract can affect your whole body, so you should be mindful of the following symptoms if you are concerned that your stress levels are causing digestive health problems:
- Stomach discomfort after eating
- Changes in bowel movements, such as constipation or diarrhea
- Stomach cramps and/or bloating
- Acid reflux, which is medically referred to as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Mood swings
- Racing thoughts
- Depressed mood
- Inability to relax
- Significant disruptions in sleeping patterns
Stress doesn’t just affect the digestive system; experiencing chronic worry for too long without finding healthy ways to manage stress levels can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to contracting serious and life-threatening infections.
What Are 3 Common Stomach Conditions That Are Affected by Stress?
Sometimes it can be tricky figuring out if elevated stress levels caused you to have stomach cramps or if the inexplicable pains made you start to stress, making the discomfort worse. Incorrect information can also make this process difficult, like the myth that peptic ulcers are caused by stress. (Untrue, by the way!)
If you’re sure the onset of the digestive problems occurred before the heightened anxiety, you could be experiencing common symptoms of one of the following digestive conditions:
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
IBD is an umbrella term that encompasses disorders that cause chronic inflammation throughout the digestive tract. Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis (UC) are different subtypes of IBD characterized by severe abdominal pain, weight loss, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, and fatigue.
Patients with Crohn’s and UC need to manage day-to-day stress levels because chronic stress and anxiety can cause patients to relapse, leading to systemic and gastrointestinal inflammatory and immune responses.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a form of gastroenteritis (temporary inflammation of the stomach and/or intestines) that, while similar to IBD, is generally less severe in its symptoms and requires less specialized medical care. Common symptoms include
Studies have shown that individuals who experienced stressful events in childhood and those with higher levels of perceived stress and anxiety are at an increased risk of developing this condition or experiencing more severe symptoms of IBS.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
More commonly known as acid reflux, GERD occurs when stomach acid backwashes into the esophagus, irritating the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. Patients with GERD might experience a burning sensation in the chest after eating, the sensation of a lump caught in the throat, and loss of sleep, among other symptoms.
Although acid reflux is associated with elevated stress, it’s not the frequency of the reflux that is affected by stress; it’s the patient’s perception of their own symptom severity. Reducing stress overall can help patients with GERD control the effects of the disease.
Tips for Calming a Nervous Stomach
- Practice mindful breathing to promote relaxation
- Exercise to reduce tension and relieve symptoms
- Focus on what you can control instead of the things that are out of your control
- Eat small meals regularly and slowly to aid digestion
- Lose excess weight to alleviate pressure on your stomach and relieve heartburn symptoms
- Stop smoking to prevent further inflammation
Can Stress from Anxiety Mess Up Your Digestive System?
Experiencing chronic worry can wreak havoc on your digestive system, as well as your immune system, so finding healthy ways of reducing stress is crucial for achieving total wellness. Whether your tummy troubles stem from a brief period of stress and anxiety or a more serious medical condition, working yourself up even more, wondering can stress cause stomach issues?, isn’t going to make the issue resolve itself any more quickly.
If you’ve tried decreasing your everyday stress levels on your own and are still having digestive problems, it’s time to schedule an appointment to talk to a doctor about your digestive health today.