How Does Stress Affect the Digestive System?Feb. 15, 2023
Stress, worry and anxiety can take a toll on your stomach.
Just think back to how you felt the last time you went on a job interview, got pulled over for speeding or had to perform or give a public speech. Those butterflies in your belly were hard to ignore.
"The enteric nervous system, a collection of neurons in the gastrointestinal tract, makes up your gut's brain," says Dr. Muhammad Talha Farooqui, a gastroenterologist at Houston Methodist. "The entire system is very sensitive to moods — and stress can be a major contributor to many digestive problems."
What can stress do to your stomach?
The most common way stress affects the stomach is by worsening the symptoms of a digestive condition you may already have.
Here are three examples:
Heartburn is a burning or pain behind your breastbone. It occurs when the muscle between your esophagus and stomach opens up, allowing stomach acid to travel upwards into your esophagus.
"Stress can slow down digestion, keeping food in your stomach longer, which can be a trigger for heartburn," explains Dr. Farooqui.
Ever experienced bloating, nausea, belching, gas and diarrhea after eating a meal?
It could be indigestion, which is most often caused by
- Eating too much or eating too fast
- Consuming high-fat foods
- Eating during stressful situations
"Indigestion can come and go depending on your stress level," Dr. Farooqui adds.
3. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
IBS is an intestinal disorder that's often marked by:
- Diarrhea or constipation
Some IBS sufferers find that stress causes flare-ups.
How to relieve stomach pain from stress
You can't always avoid stress, but you can manage it and help ease your stomach woes.
Some key strategies include:
- Exercise. Regular activity helps reduce stress, control weight, regulate bowel function and improve your overall well-being. Just make sure to exercise before eating or wait at least one hour after a meal. (Related: Am I Exercising Enough?)
- Relaxation and breathing techniques. Yoga, meditation or just taking slow, rhythmic breaths can lessen stress and, in turn, cramps and pain.
- Biofeedback. This mind-over-matter technique helps you learn to control over certain body functions, including gastrointestinal functions, and bring them back to normal. Biofeedback also helps reduce muscle tension and slow heart rate, promoting a relaxed state.
Can stress cause stomach pain that won't go away?
Most everyone has occasional stomach issues, but experts say it's important not to overlook lingering or recurring digestive problems even if you think stress could be the culprit.
If you've been experiencing heartburn, indigestion or symptoms of IBS more than two or three times a week, it's likely time to see a gastroenterologist. Prolonged digestive problems can be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcers or other digestive disorders.