You may be struggling with stomach pain and digestive distress without understanding why, thinking it might be something you ate. But could something you least expected be the culprit?
Can stress cause stomach pain?
Stress, especially chronic stress, can indeed increase your risk for gastrointestinal (GI) problems.
“Stress and anxiety are common causes of stomach pain and other GI symptoms,” Dr. Nina Gupta, a gastroenterologist at University of Chicago Medicine, said in an article. Stress impacts the digestive system through the nervous system, and can affect food movement and the gut’s bacterial balance. Stress can also cause people to eat poorly, smoke and/or drink too much alcohol or caffeine — all habits that can trigger stomach pain.
Outside the brain, the gut has the greatest area of nerves. This component of the autonomic nervous system — known as the enteric nervous system — is sometimes referred to as the “second brain.” According to Harvard Health, “neurons lining the digestive tract signal muscle cells to initiate a series of contractions that propel food farther along, breaking it down into nutrients and waste.”
The enteric nervous system communicates with the central nervous system and is known as the “brain-gut axis.” This connection explains why stress may cause digestive problems.
According to the American Psychological Association, stress may increase the risk for or exacerbate symptoms of the following gut diseases or dysfunction:
- Bloating, burping, gas
- Heartburn, acid reflux, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome
Bloating, burping, gas
Stress can contribute to bloating, burping or gassiness by making swallowing foods difficult or increasing swallowed air, per the American Psychological Association.
It can also slow the digestive process, allowing gut bacteria to create gas. For treatment, gastroenterologist Dr. Roshini Rajapaksa of NYU Langone Health in New York City recommends exercise: “Exercise actually helps your colon start moving and it moves that gas along, so it’s not going to stay in your system,” she shares. She also suggests avoiding chewing gum, using straws or drinking carbonated beverages, to keep you from swallowing extra air.
Heartburn, acid reflux, GERD
Emotional stress can increase stomach acid production leading to heartburn and acid reflux, according to Harvard Health. It can also aggravate GERD, a disorder where acid rises from the stomach into the esophagus.
How to counteract that? Harvard Health experts suggest not smoking, eating a healthy diet, limiting coffee, tea and cola drinks, eating smaller meals, avoiding meals close to bedtime and using relaxation strategies like