Stressed? Listen to your gut

Stress can trigger health problems like acidity and heartburn. Remedy this with simple lifestyle changes


People tend to drink caffeine or eat junk food when they are stressed. Photo: iStockphoto
People tend to drink caffeine or eat junk food when they are stressed. Photo: iStockphoto

You have had a bad day at work—pending projects, looming deadlines, and to top it all, a tiff with your manager. You skip lunch and somehow manage to finish your work. And then you decide to order burger and fries. And before you know it, you are burping and feeling nauseous. Don’t blame it all on junk food, for anxiety too plays a role. 

According to a 2011 article titled “Stress And The Gut: Pathophysiology, Clinical Consequences, Diagnostic Approach And Treatment Options” in the journal Physiology And Pharmacology, stress has both short- and long-term effects on the gastrointestinal tract. Exposure to stress results in alterations of the brain-gut interactions, ultimately leading to the development of a broad array of gastrointestinal disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome and other functional gastrointestinal diseases, food antigen-related adverse responses, peptic ulcer and gastroesophageal reflux disease. 

“One of the first signs of anxiety is acidity. Think of it as your brain telling you that you are stressed. It’s a bad cycle. You drink caffeine or eat junk food when you are stressed, which leads to increased acid production in the stomach, which leads to a stressed digestive system,” says Era Dutta, a consultant psychiatrist at Fortis Mulund in Mumbai.

Good and bad stress

Before we discuss the effect of stress and anxiety on digestion, we must first distinguish between good and bad stress. “Eustress, or the good kind of stress, helps us to meet deadlines, remember when to pay the bills, finish school assignments, etc. However, if we start to compromise our physical or emotional health to meet our goals, then it leads to a negative kind of stress, which is commonly known as distress,” says Priya Ranjan Avinash, senior psychiatrist, ePsyClinic.com, an online mental healthcare provider.

A little bit of stress is easy to deal with. However, when stress levels increase or stress recurs frequently, it can act as a trigger for several health problems, including heartburn and acidity. Some primary signs of stress include forgetfulness and fatigue, as well as headache, indigestion and erratic bowel movements. 

“Usually, when people in office are stressed, they go for smoke breaks. Students are known to study all night, living on coffee. Not to mention that when people are stressed, they don’t think twice about reaching out for that packet of chips or a second helping of cake,” says Dr Dutta. Yet, caffeine has been known to elevate levels of stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are responsible for increased heart rate, blood pressure, and a sense of sudden alertness. So, coffee will not help you relax, it will increase your anxiety.

When a person is stressed, the adrenal gland, responsible for the secretion of a variety of hormones, releases cortisol, the primary stress hormone. After a certain level, which varies from person to person, the hormone can play a negative role, releasing acids in large quantities. If there is not enough food (because you have skipped a meal) or if there is too much oil in the stomach (you may have eaten chips, fries, burgers), then that acid is left unused in the stomach. This can lead to indigestion, gastritis, acid erosion of the walls of the stomach, and nausea. 

“Does stress increase the level of acid in the stomach? That is debatable. But it does change the response to even a small level of acid in the stomach,” says Jayshri A. Shah, gastroenterologist at Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai.  Stomach acids are required for digestion of food. However, when stressed, our body reacts differently to the available acids and the food remains undigested, which can then lead to acidity.

What you should do

Dr Shah suggests simple, commonsensical steps to control the indigestion resulting from stress which gets aggravated with bad eating habits.

Space out your food intake. Instead of skipping meals and then suddenly eating too much, eat small meals through the day, even if you are chasing a deadline. 

Don’t continue to eat if you are feeling full. For this would usually mean you have overeaten and the food has not yet been digested. Smaller, frequent meals are better for health and easier for the stomach to digest. 

Chew properly. “Our lifestyle is also to be blamed. Most meetings and meet-ups with friends are now over coffee or dinner. This means you will end up talking and not concentrating on the food. If you do not concentrate on the food, you will also not chew properly, leading to difficulty in digestion,” adds Dr Shah.

Stay physically active. Those who are not active suffer more from acidity. Working out daily for 30 minutes can help. Remember, however, that some exercises, such as running, contact sports (because they involve jarring movements) and weightlifting (because the constant contraction of stomach can decrease blood flow to the gastrointestinal area, prompting gastric fluids to pool in one area) may make the symptoms worse, rather than better. 

Dr Shah recommends identifying your personal triggers. “Write down what is causing a reaction in your body, is it a particular type of food, is the combination of some food groups, and then avoid it as much as possible,” she says, adding: “Medicines can only give you temporary relief. Lifestyle changes have to be made.”

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