The stress of careers, deadlines, and workplace conflicts often take a huge toll on our health. “Just as a chain tends to break at its weakest link, stress and strain usually affect the weakest areas of our body. And quite often, it hits right below the belt—in our stomach," says Lovkesh Anand, consultant gastroenterologist, Narayana Superspeciality Hospital, Gurugram.

Graphic designer Rohit Sharma, 29, suffered from constant stomach pain and felt nauseated from time to time. He couldn’t put a finger on what had led to this but his doctor could. “I was told long and irregular hours, too much work stress and messed-up meal timings were causing severe acidity, which was leading to these symptoms," says Sharma. He couldn’t believe that stress could cause physical symptoms, but, looking back , he realized that these symptoms had, in fact, started when he had taken a new job, which came with increased work hours.

Unfortunately, stress response gets triggered by all kinds of situations—a missed deadline, an impending appraisal, boredom at the present job etc. “Some people escape with just butterflies in their stomach, others get hit hard with worse symptoms, such as nausea, bloating, cramps, overeating. In fact, one in every five patients I see today has stomach issues because of work stress," says Vinay Dhir, head of department, gastroenterology and endoscopy, SL Raheja Hospital, Mumbai.

Symptomatic clues

“Common causes of stress in the workplace include unpredictable workloads with unrealistic deadlines that make people feel pressured and overwhelmed, lack of role clarity or job security, or tense relations with the boss or peers," says Neha Dutt, psychologist, Dharamshila Narayana Superspeciality Hospital, Delhi. This often shows up as loss of motivation, increased emotional reactions, like being more tearful, and more sick leaves and decreased performance. It can also surface as a queasy stomach that refuses to behave, often during work hours.

In fact, an oft queasy stomach and heaviness in the belly is the first symptom of work-related stress. According to Dr Anand, when you are experiencing stress, the brain sends a chemical signal to the pituitary gland. For example, if you are thinking: “they’ll fire me if I can’t do this presentation well", the pituitary gland senses danger and sends a hormone called adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) to the adrenal glands, sitting on top of the kidneys. The glands then release another hormone, cortisol, which, besides the classic stress responses (faster heart rate, higher blood pressure, feeling sweaty), inflames the stomach lining, causing that “knot in the belly" sensation. Stress also leads to increased acid production, which, in turn, causes nausea, belching, etc.

“When facing a challenging situation at work, I always tell my patients to take remedial actions (like breathing slowly to calm down)," says Dr Dutt.

Some people suffer from bouts of diarrhoea before an important interview or appraisal meeting. “That is because a surge of stress can lead to miscommunication among your gut, brain and autonomic nervous system, which regulates bowel movement and sensitivity," explains Dr Anand. If this is not checked, it can even lead to irritable bowel syndrome, a gut motility disorder which is characterized by bouts of painful muscle spasms, diarrhoea and constipation.

Too nervous before that presentation? This could lead to excess gas in the belly. “That’s because some people gulp in air as a nervous habit. This process of subconsciously ‘eating’ air is called aerophagy, and this, at times, besides a gaseous attack, may also lead to acidity and heart burn," says Dr Dhir.

Demanding jobs where people don’t have much control over their work make them more prone to ulcers, says G S Lamba, senior consultant gastroenterologist, Sri Balaji Action Medical Institute, Delhi, giving the example of a patient he treated recently, who had a work related stomach ulcer. In such cases, he advises a two-week course of antibiotics to kill the bad bacteria as well as medication to suppress acid production and protect the stomach lining.

Overeating is another very common side effect of workplace stress. Insatiable appetite, eating between meals, feeling unexplained hunger, night-time eating can all be described as an “emotional eating response". “This inadvertently leads to messing up of the stomach, besides other physical problems," explains Dutt.

So, for the sake of your stomach, think about the changes you need to make at work and in your lifestyle in order to reduce your stress levels.

Close