Can stress be the cause of your stomach pain? – Dr Wendy Davis ND

Can stress be the cause of your stomach pain?

It’s normal for most of us to experience some abdominal bloating from time to time, but beyond the occasional bloating experience, nearly a third of the North American population experiences chronic bloating.  

And if you’ve been going through a lot more stress than usual lately, you may have noticed a worsening in your symptoms. Research shows that increased stress can worsen bloating and stomach distention. 

What Is Bloating?

Bloating is the subjective feeling of pressure or gas in the abdomen. Occasional bloating, flatulence, belching, and distention are all considered a normal part of digestive physiology, especially after eating. These symptoms typically aren’t considered a problem until they begin to cause pain and/or disrupt your daily life. 

The link between stress and IBS is well-researched, and chronic stress often increases IBS-related symptoms, like:

  • Gas, bloating, and abdominal distention

  • Constipation

  • Diarrhea

  • Stomach pain

  • Cramping

Those with IBS tend to struggle with mental health disorders, and research shows that they experience higher levels of depression, anxiety, and distress than the general population Additionally, people with IBS tend to have higher levels of stress and a lower quality of life.

The link between stress and increased IBS symptoms, like bloating, is well-established. This is likely due to stress changing the gut microbiota, leading to dysbiosis and/or bacterial overgrowth. These gut flora changes can lead to excess gas production and inflammation inside the GI tract. Unfortunately, as inflammation levels increase, our sensitivity to pain also increases, adding to the sensation of bloating. 

Studies show that stressors alter the microbial balance and production of gut flora metabolites. This change in the microbiome then causes physiological changes in the brain via the gut-brain axis.

When the brain creates a stress response, chemical messengers — like stress hormones and neurotransmitters — travel down the gut-brain axis and can cause hypersensitivity in the gut. 

Regardless of the exact mechanism, there appears to be a strong correlation between bloating and stress.

So, what can you do if you’ve established that stress is the cause of your digestive troubles?

Step 1:  Stress Management

Stress-reduction techniques can reduce the “fight or flight response” that happens during times of stress and can improve your gut health. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), biofeedback, and meditation all help reduce stress levels and relieve stress-induced bloating.

Exercise: Physical activity is beneficial for improving stress, alleviating uncomfortable GI symptoms, and improving overall wellness. For the best results, aim to engage in moderate physical activity two to three hours per week   Yoga also appears to be an effective exercise for reducing bloating, and is well-known to help reduce stress and anxiety levels.

Step 2:  Change Your Diet

Start by following an elimination diet or something like my 21 Day Detox program in order to help heal your gut, reduce inflammation, and determine which foods might be triggering your symptoms. 

Or you can start with a Paleo Diet, which emphasizes a grain, dairy and sugar diet with an increased consumption of whole unprocessed foods. It reduces inflammation in the intestinal tract, and can be effective at eliminating digestive symptoms, like bloating.. This is a well-rounded diet that eliminates a number of common triggers without being overly restrictive. 

Common triggers that are eliminated on the Paleo diet include: 

  • Sugar

  • Processed foods 

  • Gluten-containing foods and other grains 

  • Dairy 

Step 3: Introduce Probiotics

Probiotics are very effective at reducing symptoms of GI disorders, including bloating and abdominal distention. Probiotics help to reduce the dysbiosis that occurs from stress and can help restore the normal gut flora. Although I'm a huge fan of food based probiotics like sauerkraut and kombucha, they may not offer the same benefits as a probiotic supplement initially, but can help to maintain a healthy gut once established.