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Stress and your stomach

Stress, worry and anxiety can take a toll on your stomach: Just think back to how you felt the last time you went on a job interview, got pulled over or awaited the results of a medical test. Those nervous butterflies in your belly were hard to ignore.

The enteric nervous system, a collection of neurons in the gastrointestinal tract, makes up your gut’s “brain.” This system works with the endocrine system, which is responsible for hormones that affect metabolism and how the digestion and elimination process works. The entire system is very sensitive to moods—and stress is a major contributor to many digestive problems. Here’s a look at common conditions and how they’re affected by stress:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is an intestinal disorder that’s marked by cramping, gas, bloating and a change in bowel habits. Stress doesn’t cause the condition, but some IBS sufferers find that it brings on flare-ups. Experts think that this may be because the colon is partly controlled by the body’s autonomic nervous system, which responds to stress.
  • Heartburn occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter muscle relaxes and opens up. This can cause stomach acid to back up into the esophagus. According to the National Heartburn Alliance, stress can actually cause problems with the way food makes its way through your digestive system, causing food to move upward instead of down. Research shows that heartburn sufferers who recently experienced a life-changing event were more likely to develop severe symptoms.
  • Indigestion—or feelings of bloating or nausea, belching, gas and diarrhea—is often caused by eating too much or eating too fast, consuming high-fat foods or eating during stressful situations. It can also be a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or ulcers. Indigestion tends to get worse during stressful times and improve in times of relaxation. Stress can worsen underlying health conditions and trigger unhealthy eating and smoking, both of which are known to worsen indigestion.