Can Anxiety and Stress Cause Stomach Pain?

April 6, 2021

Can Anxiety and Stress Cause Stomach Pain?

woman holding stomach

When the heat of life turns up and you’re feeling the pressure, does your stomach start to twist into knots? Especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, people of all ages have been stretched to their limits.

Jessica Morrell, CNP, of Avera Medical Group Functional Medicine and Virginia Lemme, PA-C, of Avera Medical Group Internal Medicine Women’s agree that stress shouldn’t be taken lightly and shouldn’t be shrugged off.

How Does Anxiety and Stress Cause Gut Problems?

When stress occurs, the sympathetic nervous system activates a surge of the stress hormone, cortisol, into the bloodstream, causing the “fight or flight” response.

When stress is left unmanaged, elevated levels of cortisol can erode and damage the lining of the digestive tract.

Cortisol also hinders your body’s ability to metabolize glucose in the blood, produce serotonin (the mood-regulating hormone), and control bowel contractions — causing you to visit the bathroom too many times or not enough.

Symptoms of Gut Stress

Because gut stress affects your whole body, stay on the lookout for these symptoms:

  • Upset stomach after eating
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Cramping and/or bloating
  • Heartburn
  • Acid reflux
  • Anxious, racing thoughts
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to sleep or sleeping too much

Stress is a major contributor to disease. “When you’re super stressed, you’re more at risk of getting an infection because your immune system is compromised,” said Morrell.

“Gut stress also affects what nutrients are absorbed by the digestive system,” said Lemme. “Gas production increases in your gut and weakens the intestinal barriers. As a result, gut bacteria enter the bloodstream and cause inflammation in the body.”

Ways to Cope with Stress

As you manage stress, keep your tummy in mind by implementing gut-friendly, health habits:

  • Eat well – Limit sugar and processed foods. Rather, drink plenty of water and eat foods rich in fiber. Good nutrition and regularly scheduled eating support your immune system, which helps prevent all kinds of disease.
  • Practice meditation and prayer – Journaling, prayer and meditation are practices that clear the clutter in our minds.
  • Use complementary medicine – Known as integrative medicine, aromatherapy, massage and acupuncture can soothe anxiety.
  • Exercise – Working out releases feel-good hormones called endorphins, which will help you navigate stressful situations with a positive mindset.
  • Say “no” – When life is overwhelming, say “no” and reevaluate what activities and responsibilities you want to continue.
  • Take a probioticProbiotic supplements maintain and restore gut bacteria.
  • Avoid alcohol – “It’s tempting to text a friend and go out for drinks after a stressful week, but that will further irritate and damage your digestive tract,” said Morrell.
  • Do not smoke – Quit smoking; smoking-cessation resources can help.

“The major takeaway is to take a step back and look at your life and mental health,” said Lemme.

“Remove chronic stressors and set boundaries in relationships,” added Morrell.

If you’re concerned about how stress and anxiety are affecting your well-being, schedule an appointment with a health care provider.