Is stress upsetting your stomach? With a worldwide pandemic causing massive disruption to our normal way of life (including issues such as job loss, financial difficulties, and isolation), it’s not surprising that stress-induced anxiety levels are higher than ever. In order to help you combat unwanted gastric side effects, we’ve gathered several tips for how to relax an upset stomach when stress is inevitable, and how to know when you should consult a gastroenterologist.
Why does stress upset my stomach?
Your digestive tract has its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system (ENS). It contains 100 million neurotransmitters, neurons, and nerves that are located throughout your entire gastrointestinal system. Have you ever been excited or nervous and felt like you had “butterflies” in your stomach? Or gotten bad news that made you feel “sick to your stomach”? Or maybe you’ve gotten a “gut feeling” about someone after first meeting them. These are all examples of how your emotions can physically affect your digestive tract.
Can anxiety give you diarrhea?
Absolutely. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) says that when a person experiences extreme anxiety, the body responds by releasing certain hormones and chemicals in response. These can disrupt the delicate balance of the gut microbiome, leading to diarrhea. In addition, anxiety changes how the brain reacts to signals from the GI tract, causing the brain to misinterpret anxiety as an indication that digestion is moving too slowly. This causes the brain to send signals to speed up digestion, leading to a “churning” feeling in the stomach and intestines and resulting in loose stools.
What helps an upset stomach from anxiety?
There are several things you can try to alleviate a nervous stomach.
- Calming techniques such as meditation, biofeedback, cognitive behavioral therapy, and gut-directed relaxation training are all proven therapies to help patients better deal with their stress levels and improve mood, physical symptoms of digestive discomfort, and quality of life. Since the GI tract is so sensitive to our mental state, focusing on mindful practices and tuning in to our emotions can help alleviate disagreeable symptoms.
- Consuming probiotics and food or beverage with active cultures can help to balance out the bacteria in the gut. Our gut microbiome depends on the food we consume, and research has shown that diversity generally leads to a happier and healthier digestive system. A diet full of processed foods and high levels of fat, sugar, and salt can lead to unpleasant digestive consequences like constipation, diarrhea, and excess bloat. A variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, fermented foods, and Omega-3 fatty acids can help to eliminate those undesirable side effects.
- If your feelings of anxiety are resulting in frequent episodes of diarrhea, you can try avoiding spicy foods, dairy products, and caffeine.
- Several over-the-counter medications are available to treat the symptoms of digestive distress such as excess stomach acid, heartburn, nausea, and diarrhea. These can be helpful for occasional use and must be taken only as directed.
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, and nausea usually resolve on their own within a few days, but it’s smart to rest as much as you can and drink plenty of fluids in order to speed up your recovery. Drinking fluids with electrolytes (such as sports drinks) can help, as can water, juices, and clear broths.
Should I see a gastroenterologist about my upset stomach?
If you’ve been experiencing unpleasant digestive symptoms for 2-4 weeks, it might be time to see a doctor. Perhaps you’ve tried some of the recommendations listed above but aren’t getting relief, or maybe you have an underlying feeling that something just isn’t right. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) recommends that patients should see a doctor if their digestive upset (stomach pain or nausea) lasts for more than two weeks. You should also see a doctor immediately if you experience any of the following in addition to stomach discomfort:
- difficulty breathing or swallowing
- diarrhea that lasts for more than two days
- frequent vomiting or vomit that looks like it contains blood or coffee grounds
- pain in the chest, neck, jaw, or arm
- unexplained weight loss
- bloody or black stools
The talented gastroenterologists at Digestive Health Associates of Texas are here to help with unpleasant digestive symptoms brought on by stress. Get in touch with us today to schedule a consultation!