Stressful job? Too much going on? It could be causing your stomach issues. From a main trigger of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) to constant bloating, the impact of stress on your tummy can be massive!
Is work stress causing my tummy issues?
We all know what it feels like to be stressed and anxious. Maybe we have too much going on at work or we’re trying to balance too many things at once. A whopping 79% of people in the UK say they suffer from work related stress - caused by work politics and the performance of others!
Many of us notice that we become excessively bloated when we are feeling particularly stressed. When we’re stressed, foods that don’t usually cause us any digestive discomfort can cause us to become bloated.
This is especially the case in people who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition in which bloating is already a common occurrence. Excess psychological stress can also result in abdominal cramping, constipation, and other emotional symptoms.
The question is, is it really psychological stress that is causing you to get bloated? In this article, we are going to answer this question in more detail, so keep reading!
What Are the Symptoms of Stress-Related Bloating?
The obvious symptom of stress-related bloating is exactly that - bloating! This refers to the uncomfortable expansion of our stomach or intestines.
Alongside bloating, you might also experience the following symptoms when you’re feeling particularly stressed:
- Abdominal cramping
- Changes in bowel movements
- Feeling like you have butterflies in your stomach
You might experience one or all of the above symptoms. It’s important to recognise how your body responds to stress so that you can quickly take action if you notice these symptoms again in the future.
Living With Chronic Low-Level Stress
Stress and anxiety are common nowadays. With the increasing pressures of society and the ongoing challenges that life throws at us, it’s difficult not to feel stressed sometimes!
Even the minor things that don’t seem that significant can contribute to your overall psychological stress. The morning traffic jam while you’re taking your kids to school, spilling your coffee down your clothes before a social event, or getting a work email at the last minute before you go home…
For a lot of us, living with chronic low-level stress is normal. We’ve become accustomed to living with these ever-lasting stressors to the point where we ignore them. We tune them out.
That is until our stress begins to cause physical symptoms, like bloating, cramps, and nausea. Often, the first signs of excessive stress appear in the digestive system. These physical digestive issues usually crop up before we even notice any emotional changes.
Cortisol and the Stress Response
It’s thought that the reason why we experience digestive symptoms when we are psychologically stressed is because of the close connection between the gut and the brain. This is known as the gut-brain axis and this connection is all thanks to the vagus nerve.
The role of the vagus nerve and the gut-brain axis is to monitor and integrate gut function and cognitive function. This connection is active at all times and it’s the reason why psychological stress causes physical symptoms in your stomach and intestines.
When you are feeling stressed or anxious, it causes the area of the brain that is responsible for memory and emotional responses (the limbic system) to become activated. Once activated, this region of the brain sends signals to the adrenal glands, causing the release of cortisol.
Known as the ‘stress hormone’, cortisol causes the breakdown of glycogen and fat stores to provide more energy for the body. This is an evolutionary mechanism that developed to enable us to fight or run away when we’re in danger. Cortisol also causes an increase in heart rate and respiratory rate, sending more oxygen to our working muscles in case we need to fight or run away (fight or flight).
Our brains can’t distinguish between the stress caused by a lion chasing after us or the stress resulting from an endless stream of emails or a jam-packed work schedule. So, it responds in exactly the same way - by stimulating the release of cortisol.
Stress and the Digestive System
When you’re stressed and anxious, and your body thinks that you’re in danger, it diverts blood away from your digestive system. After all, if you need to run from a lion, you’re not going to be eating any time soon. You need to focus on survival!
If you’re chronically stressed, your body thinks that you’re constantly being chased by that lion or you’re constantly in danger. So, blood will constantly be diverted away from your gut, which reduces gut motility and leads to bloating.
High cortisol has also been linked to increased intestinal permeability (colloquially known as ‘leaky gut syndrome’). This refers to when the junctions between the cells that line your intestines widen, allowing more compounds to enter the bloodstream.
That stress can be caused by real life dangers or, in a more modern case, work place stress. If you're stressed at work you'll likely be spending your work day in a high cortisol, flight or fight response. This causes havoc on the digestive system.
The Link Between Stress and Sugar Consumption
Stress at work can also translate into a poor diet - Research suggests that there is a close link between stress, anxiety, and sugar consumption, both of which can increase the severity of bloating when combined.
In particular, the consumption of high amounts of refined carbohydrates can negatively impact the gut microbiome. This can decrease your ability to deal with psychological stress and lead to digestive discomfort.
Plus, most of us eat more processed food when we’re feeling stressed and this exacerbates the problem. Even a short period of stress and a transient increase in refined sugar consumption can alter the composition of the gut microbiome. These changes can often lead to increased bloating and cramping.
How Can You Relieve Stress-Related Stomach Issues?
There isn’t much that we can do to completely eliminate every stressor in our lives but there is plenty that you can do to manage your stress more effectively and relieve digestive symptoms, such as taking natural remedies and supplements.
The best treatments and solutions depend on the root cause of your stress and the specific symptoms that you’re experiencing. However, there are some general things that will help almost anybody who suffers from stress-related bloating, including those that we have covered below.
1) Practice deep breathing exercises
Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system. Remember earlier in the article where we mentioned the vagus nerve? Well, the vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system.
This branch of the autonomic nervous system is responsible for ‘rest and digest’. It causes you to feel more relaxed and reduces your stress. It lowers your heart rate and slows down your breathing rate, helping to relieve the common symptoms of anxiety.
Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most effective ways to calm down your nervous system, minimise your fight or flight response, and lower cortisol in the body. As a result, it can reduce bloating and digestive discomfort.
Follow along with a deep breathing video on mine and incorporate this type of breathing into your daily routine for optimal results.
2) Take probiotics and consume prebiotic foods
When you’re experiencing bloating, one of the best things that you can do is consume probiotic-rich foods or probiotics supplements.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that can help to balance your gut microbiome. They are found in sauerkraut, miso, tofu, temper, kefir, yoghurt, and kombucha.
There is also a wide range of probiotic supplements on the market so it’s important to find the most suitable options for your needs. Make sure to get yourself a probiotic that is formulated to relieve protein and provide rapid gas relief, just like our ‘A Dose for Bloating’ supplement' here at Wild Dose.
When your gut microbiota is healthy and well-balanced, your digestive system will be able to break down food that you eat more easily, reducing the risk of bloating.
To support the probiotics and microbes in your gut, you’ll need to consume lots of pre-biotics. These are plant-based fibres, such as galactose oligosaccharides, that your beneficial gut microbes need to grow and thrive.
3) Eat prebiotic foods
Plant-based fibres have been shown to lower the symptoms of stress and anxiety because of their ability to balance the gut microbiota. If you are somebody who regularly experiences bloating and digestive discomfort, it’s a good idea to avoid these foods or lower your intake of them - they are particularly high in certain fibres.
These foods are known as being high in FODMAPs, which stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. High-FODMAP foods include:
- Fruits, such as apples, apricots, blackberries, grapes, peaches, pears, and watermelon
- Vegetables, such as asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, leeks, mushroom, red bell peppers
Try and limit the intact of as many of these foods as possible while stressed. If you’re unsure how to safely do so, consult a dietician or nutrition expert to help you. However, do not do this long term unless you have specifically been put on a Low FODMAP diet with the aid of a medical professional.
4) Get emotional support
Psychological stress and anxiety can be really difficult to deal with, especially when you feel like you are suffering alone. Reaching out to your loved ones or two professionals will help you to get the emotional support that you need to manage your stress.
Becoming aware of your thought patterns and your triggers is vital if you want to minimise the physical symptoms of stress, such as bloating. No matter how many supplements you take, your symptoms will continue to occur unless you address the root cause of your stress and anxiety.
Consider therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or hypnotherapy to see if they are affected for you.