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Surely you've experienced butterflies when you're nervous—or that dreadful "pit" in your stomach. But maybe you've experienced even worse stomach issues from stress and anxiety—like diarrhea, gas, bloating, or even abdominal pain.
It's no coincidence, gastroenterologist Dr. Roshini Raj says.
"Stress can really negatively affect our health in so many ways, but particularly our gut," she explains. "When we are under chronic stress, we release hormones, and one is called cortisol. Cortisol is a nasty hormone that can increase your propensity for weight gain, your risk for Type 2 diabetes. It can also cause a lot of digestive problems."
"There really is an interplay between your gut and your brain, and they're constantly in conversation with each other—so much so that if you're anxious and you're nervous, it can really affect the functioning of your gut," the doctor continues. "We call the gut the 'second brain' or your 'little brain.'"
"There are four levels of ways stress can affect your digestive tract or your gut," she adds. And Dr. Raj is going to break each level down, with ways to approach and help each.
- Nervous stomach, butterflies, pit at the bottom of stomach
- Upset stomach/diarrhea
- Stomach pain/discomfort
What causes a "butterflies" feeling in your stomach?
"When your brain gets stimulated by anxiety or nerves," Dr. Raj explains, "it sends signals down to your gut through what's called the vagus nerve. This is one of the largest, most important nerves in your body. The vagus nerve then stimulates your gut to move, to contract. And that's what gives you that somersault-like feeling when you're nervous about something."
Can you get diarrhea from stress?
"Some of the same neurotransmitters—things like serotonin—that are released in your brain are also released by the lining of your gut," the doctor explains. "And sometimes if those go haywire, it can cause an overactive, and over-speedy digestion. Another set-up for that is an imbalance of good and bacteria in your gut."
How can I balance the bacteria in my gut?
"One thing to make you more resilient to stress in your gut is to make sure your microbiome—that healthy community of bacteria—is totally balanced," Dr. Raj says. "[There are foods that] have probiotics—healthy, good-for-you bacteria—but also prebiotics. Those are the foods that fuel the good bacteria that's already in your gut."
FOODS HIGH IN PROBIOTICS
- Yogurt with live and active cultures
- Kefir: "[The fermented drink] has kind of a yogurt flavor, but it's very unique," Dr. Raj says.
- Kimchi (a.k.a. fermented cabbage)
FOODS HIGH IN PREBIOTICS
Can stress cause gas?
"Sometimes stress can make [gas and bloating] a major issue," Dr. Raj says. "What's happening there is the stress is affecting how you digest your food and then your food is producing more gas—more air in the system—which leads to that distended feeling."
How can I get rid of stress bloating?
- Exercise: "A lot of people don't realize that exercise actually helps your colon start moving," Dr. Raj says, "and it moves that gas along, so it's not going to stay in your system."
- Avoid chewing gum + using straws + drinking carbonated beverages: "When you chew gum, you're actually swallowing air during that act of chewing," she explains. "With straws, as well, you end up getting a lot of air in your system."
Can stress make your stomach hurt?
Yup. "This is usually due to a spasming of your intestine—that wrenching pain that you might get because of stress," the gastroenterologist explains. "Sometimes it can happen immediately after a very stressful situation. Here, again, the hormones and the chemicals are affecting your gut."
What can help with abdominal pain from stress?
"We know that deep breathing can break the cycle, [plus] meditation [and] acupuncture," Dr. Raj says. "But if you want something quick that you can just do at home, acupressure is another thing to try."
Watch the video above to see Dr. Raj demonstrate two ways to apply acupressure to your stomach.
When should you see a doctor about stomach pain?
"Part of it is the levels, but also the frequency at which these things are happening," Dr. Raj explains. "The nervous stomach might not sound like a big deal, but if it's happening to the point where it's affecting your ability to do your job or have a good relationship, it could be a sign of a more serious underlying condition."
Always consult your doctor if you're experiencing significant and/or frequent stomach pain.