Can Stress Cause Acid Reflux? Physical Symptoms Of Stress

By Stephanie Kirby

Updated August 28, 2019

Reviewer Debra Halseth, LCSW

Are you suffering from indigestion and heartburn? Have you been racking your brain trying to determine what you're eating that's causing such a problem for you? Have you been asking yourself "can stress cause acid reflux?" The unfortunate reality is that stress can cause a lot of symptoms that affect both your physical and mental health. Being aware of what they are can help you learn how to address them.

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What is Stress?

Understanding what stress is and learning how to recognize it is an important first step in addressing the symptoms that come along with it. Through the years, there has been a lot of differing opinions on how to define what stress is. Everyone has their own definition of it. They can tell when they are feeling "stressed", but when asked how to define it, the answers will differ.

The Cleveland Clinic describes stress as, "a normal reaction the body has when changes occur. It can respond to these changes physically, mentally, or emotionally. Stress is the body's reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. Stress is a normal part of life."

Is Stress Good or Bad?

That might seem like an odd question. Stress is bad, right? Well actually, stress serves an actual purpose. In the right situation, stress is good. When your body thinks that you're in danger, it responds with the fight-or-flight reaction. That means your body prepares to either fight to protect itself or quickly run away from the danger. The response is crucial for survival in the wild.

But in modern society, it can do more harm than good. The response should work to help you in your immediate situation. But, when the things that are causing you stress aren't threatening your safety, the natural response can be overkill and damaging to your health.

Physical Effects of Stress

When your body realizes that there is something that's causing you stress it kicks into action. Your brain starts signaling the rest of your body so you'll have the energy that you need to react quickly. According to Harvard Medical School, "The heart beats quicker than normal, forcing blood to the heart, muscles, and other vital organs. Blood pressure and pulse rate rise. The individual going through these changes also starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide. Consequently, the lungs are able to take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is then propelled to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper."

When your body doesn't actually need a fight or flight response, the changes that your body experiences under stress can lead to ongoing physical symptoms.

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Stress and Acid Reflux

Acid reflux is something that many people experience. Heartburn can be a result of eating the wrong thing, but research has been done that shows acid reflux is "significantly associated with high stress."

However, scientists have differing opinions on what causes the problem. Some believe that your body creates more stomach acid under stress and others believe that your body just becomes more sensitive to it during stressful situations. One Healthline article explains that, "Stress can also deplete the production of substances called prostaglandins, which normally protect the stomach from the effects of acid. This could increase your perception of discomfort."

But chances are, if you're experiencing acid reflux from stress, you don't really care if it's happening because you have more acid or are more sensitive to it. You just want it to stop. Learning how to reduce your stress or cope with it in a healthy way is one of the best ways to address stress and acid reflux. But, it's also helpful to identify what foods trigger your heartburn. Stress may make acid reflux worse but avoiding the foods that contribute to it is also effective in helping to reduce your symptoms.

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Keeping a food diary or food journal is a way to spot any patterns. You can track the food that you're eating along with your stress levels each day. This can help you see both of causes of stress and food triggers of your acid reflux.

Digestive Problems

There are several different types of digestive problems that stress can cause. Some people experience a loss of appetite when stressed. Others overindulge in food in an effort to comfort themselves. Both of these extremes can cause problems outside of weight gain and weight loss, your digestive system can suffer. This can be suffering from constipation or diarrhea. Either one of these can disrupt your normal daily life activities.

Insomnia

Sleep is important for your body and your mind. But, when you're struggling with stress it can make it difficult to get the sleep that you need. You may find yourself awake until well past your regular bedtime. Or, you may find that you fall asleep fast from the exhaustion from the stress of the day but wake up in the middle of the night unable to fall back asleep.

When you aren't getting the rest you need at night, it can have an impact on the other systems in your body like your immune system. So, you could find that you get sick easier as well. The last thing you want when you're already stressed is to have to deal with an illness on top of everything else, you're already struggling with.

Adults should be striving to get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. If you are getting over ten hours of sleep the quality of sleep, you're getting is most likely not the highest. And if you are getting under seven hours of sleep, you are not getting the rest that your body needs each day.

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If you struggle with sleep there are some things you can try to improve your insomnia symptoms such as deep breathing, mindfulness, and mediation.

Chronic Pain

If you're experiencing chronic pain, it could be from stress. There are studies that show there could be a connection between stress and chronic pain. However, there is more research that needs to be done in this area.

People that are experiencing pain induced by stress may experience back pain, neck pain, or even all-over joint pain. So if you have been in pain and can't quite place where it's coming from, there's a chance that it could be induced by stress.

Increased Heart Rate

One of the natural responses that your body has to stress is an increased heart rate. This is part of the fight-or-flight response. When your heart is pumping too rapidly, it can cause a domino effect in your body. You may experience shortness of breath as a result. It can also make it more difficult for your heart to properly pump blood to the other parts of your body. And, since your blood carries oxygen throughout your body, it's incredibly important.

Headaches

Many people experience headaches when dealing with stress. This symptom can vary from person to person. One person may experience a dull and constant headache while others may experience something more along the lines of a migraine. It may come on suddenly and be very intense.

When you are dealing with stress, a headache can make it even more complicated. They can make it harder to focus and to come up with the solution that you are looking for.

Depression

If stress is left untreated or ignored for long enough it can turn into a growing problem. For example, it can turn into anxiety and depression. Stress and depression share some of the same symptoms. However, if you're struggling from depression you could also experience loss of motivation, withdrawal from family and friends, irritability, anger, and hopelessness. Depression needs to be taken seriously because it can lead to serious consequences including suicide. This is another reason why stress needs to be taken seriously as well.

Other Symptoms

While these are some of the main physical symptoms of stress, there are other symptoms that you could be experiencing as well including:

  • Low energy
  • Frequent colds
  • Change in libido
  • Teeth grinding
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth

Treatment for Stress

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Stress is not something that you should ignore. It has loads of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms that it causes. You may feel like you shouldn't make a big deal out of it because everyone experiences stress, but chronic stress leads to many other problems.

You will never be able to eliminate all stress from your life, but you can learn how to cope with it in a healthy way, so you don't get stuck in all these symptoms. There are things that you can do at home on your own to help with stress. Some of the most commonly used DIY coping strategies include:

  • Deep breathing
  • Mediation
  • Mindfulness
  • Journaling
  • Exercise
  • Using proper time management

While these strategies can help you to gain some control over the stress in your life, it isn't always the case. If you are struggling and feel stuck in a stressful situation, it's helpful to talk to a therapist. They can help you to identify areas of your life that are contributing to your stress, changes that you can make in order to overcome it, and how to avoid unnecessary stress in the first place.


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