The Connection Between Stress and Heartburn

The connection between your brain and digestive system is strong.

When you experience stress – either chronic stress or ongoing tension from life’s little stressors – your digestive health is impacted. Psychological stress can impair contraction of the GI tract, induce inflammation and even increase your susceptibility to infection.  The connection between stress and heartburn is so strong that researchers have found that patients seeking therapy for stress and mental anxiety see a reduction in their GI symptoms.  

The most recent research on stress and the digestive system has centered on acid reflux.  Scientists have found that stress is a major trigger for the symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).  

In the study published in the journal, Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers followed 60 subjects for almost a year and found that the presence of severe, sustained stress in the first six months significantly predicted increased heartburn symptoms during the next four months. In addition, symptoms showed a strong, independent correlation with vital exhaustion.

Interestingly, it’s not clear whether stress actually increases the production of stomach acid or physically creates a worsening in symptoms.  The general consensus among scientists is that when you’re stressed, you become more sensitive to smaller amounts of acid in the esophagus. In other words, even though the study participants reported feeling more discomfort, the scientists didn’t find any increase in total acid produced.

Still, you are not imagining things – your heartburn probably does feel worse when you’re stressed.  The theory is that stress may cause changes in the brain that increase pain receptors, making you physically more sensitive to slight rises in acid levels. Stress can also deplete the production of substances called “prostaglandins,” which normally protect the stomach from the effects of acid. This could increase the perception of discomfort.  If you’re tired and stressed, it’s a double whammy leading to even more body changes that increase acid reflux.

If you suffer from heartburn and know that it worsens when you’re under stress, consider some relaxation strategies.  You don’t have to take up yoga, but there are things you can do to calm yourself down and help alleviate your symptoms.  

  • Exercise – a good workout helps loosen up tense and tight muscles, gets you away from the office or other stressful environment, and releases natural, feel-good hormones.
  • Diet – if you’re under stress, you’re more likely to be sensitive to heartburn-triggering foods like chocolate, citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes, spicy foods, and fatty foods.  Avoiding these triggers can help.
  • Sleep – make sure you’re getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night and try to sleep with your head elevated to reduce the risk of heartburn symptoms.
  • Music – choose songs that make you feel good or calm your frazzled nerves.

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