Can stress cause stomach problems?
Reviewed by our clinical team
We all experience stress from time to time. When we feel overwhelmed by work commitments, money worries, or a big event looming or a deadline, our bodies can react in ways that cause unpleasant symptoms.
Most of the time, these symptoms are psychological – we might feel irritable, lack focus, and feel very worried. However, stress symptoms can be physical as well.
Can stress cause stomach and gut problems?
Yes, it can. Experiencing a stressful situation can cause short-term problems in the digestive system, including:
In addition, you might find that stress affects your appetite, causing you to eat more or less than you would normally.
Stress is also known to be a trigger for long-term conditions affecting the digestive system, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is often caused by stress, and flare ups of inflammatory bowel disease, like Crohn's or Colitis, can be triggered by stress.
IBS stress flare-ups
If you have IBS, you’ll probably know that feeling stressed and anxious can cause a flare-up of symptoms. Before a big event or on a day where you have to meet lots of work deadlines, you might experience cramps, bloating, diarrhoea or constipation.
If you’re expecting a flare-up of IBS due to stress, it can be a good idea to stock up on medicines to treat your symptoms in the short term. Loperamide is a good treatment for diarrhoea, while laxatives can help with constipation. For bloating and cramps, you could try Buscopan.
In the long term, The IBS Network has some good resources for coping with stress.
Why does stress cause problems in the digestive system?
There’s increasing evidence showing that there’s an important relationship between the brain and the digestive system. This is sometimes called the “brain-gut” or “gut-brain” axis.
Communication between the two can affect activity in the brain and in the digestive system. This is why stress can cause symptoms in the stomach and the gut, and why the reverse is also true – having digestive problems can make us feel very stressed and anxious.
When we’re in a stressful situation, our bodies tend to have a “fight or flight” reaction. Hormones are released which prepare us to act, by keeping us alert and energised.
The theory is that when these stress hormones are released, digestion slows down or even stops altogether so that the body can divert its energy to managing the perceived threat. This slowing down of the digestive process causes the symptoms of bloating, constipation, and pain.
We also know that in some people, stress can cause the opposite problem, speeding up the digestive process and causing diarrhoea.
Managing the symptoms of stress-induced digestive problems
There’s no easy way to prevent stress from causing problems in your stomach and gut. One option is to avoid eating when you’re feeling particularly stressed within a short period e.g. before an exam or speaking in public.
However, avoiding food isn’t a good long-term solution. If you’re regularly experiencing stress and this seems to be causing frequent digestive problems, it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor.
Your GP should be able to offer you some stress-busting techniques, and may be able to refer you for counselling or therapy. Treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be good for breaking anxious thought patterns and recognising stress triggers.
Additionally, your GP will be able to assess your symptoms and work out if your digestive problems might be caused by something else.
Symptoms like stomach pains, changes to your bowel movements (e.g. constipation or diarrhoea), indigestion, and heartburn should be checked by a GP if they haven’t improved within a couple of weeks. You should also go to the doctor if you experience any bleeding from the bottom, difficulty swallowing, or unexpected weight loss.
Other tips for improving your stomach and gut health
The NHS recommends the following:
- Quit smoking
- Eat properly – don’t rush your food, overeat, or have food right before bed
- Try to stay a healthy weight
- Watch your alcohol intake