Overthinking about the flowers at your wedding ceremony? Or are you battling some bridesmaid drama just days leading up to the D-day? Well, it's time to take a deep breath and find your zen because stress can not only make you uncomfortable mentally but also physically.
Dr Nutan Desai, senior consultant-gastroenterology at Fortis Hospital, Mulund agrees. She says, "The expression ‘feeling butterflies in the stomach' is said for a reason. Our gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Anger, anxiety, sadness, elation — all these feelings (and others) have a close connection with the gut. Stress is associated with changes in gut bacteria, which in turn can influence mood. So, your emotions can influence your gut function."
The brain and gastrointestinal tract are intimately connected to each other. The gut has hundreds of millions of neurons (nerve cells) that can function independently and are in constant communication with the brain. Therefore, stress can affect this brain-gut communication and may trigger pain, bloating, and gut discomfort. Long-term stress can thus cause constipation, diarrhoea, or an upset stomach.
Stress in your stomach?
The sudden cramps or the 'weird' feeling just before an important meeting or conversation is actually your body sending you an SOS.
Dr Desai says, "Early life stress can impact the development of the nervous system, as well as how the body reacts to stress. These changes can increase the risk for gut diseases or dysfunction in the future. For example, you might feel nauseated before giving a presentation or feel intestinal pain during times of stress. Stress increases gut distress, and therefore you might get a bout of diarrhoea or repeated urges to urinate during or following a stressful event. Stress can both delay the emptying of stomach contents and speed up the passage of material through the intestines. This combination of activity leads to abdominal pain and altered bowel habits. Additionally, acute psychological stress decreases a person’s pain threshold."
She adds that even otherwise healthy people commonly report having abdominal discomfort or a change in bowel function when they are upset or distressed.
Signs of stress
According to Dr Desai, you may eat much more or much less than usual when you are stressed out. Eating more food, or an increase in the use of alcohol or tobacco can result in heartburn or acid reflux. This in turn exacerbates the situation as unhealthy diets may deteriorate one’s mood.
"Stress or exhaustion can also increase the severity of regularly occurring heartburn pain. A rare case of spasms in the oesophagus can be set off by intense stress and can be easily mistaken for a heart attack. Stress may increase the amount of air that is swallowed, which increases burping, bloating and farting," she adds.
What can you do?
Many studies show that stressful life events are associated with the onset of symptoms or worsening of symptoms in several digestive conditions like Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease and Peptic Ulcers.
"Stress can lead to many gastrointestinal symptoms like decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting, burping, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and overeating. This is related to the intimate communication and connection between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain. However, before attributing symptoms to stress it is important not to miss a pathological cause for these symptoms. Visit a doctor and get a proper examination done because these changes can have a long-term impact and ignoring it can be harmful to health," she adds.
So, when you anticipate a stressful trigger, amp up your self-care with meditation, breathing exercises and any other calming activities.
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