Can Stress Cause Heartburn?

By

Chris Iliades, MD

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Reduce Stress

Has anxiety ever given you butterflies in your stomach? Or have you ever felt gut-wrenching stress? If you answer yes, you've experienced the close link between your emotions and your stomach. Stress can give you a bout of heartburn. If you already suffer from heartburn, stress can make it worse.

Heartburn occurs when stomach acid seeps up into your esophagus. That's the tube that gets food from your mouth to your stomach. Once food is in your stomach, your body releases acids to digest it. Your stomach can deal with acid, but the esophagus can't. So, when acid gets into the esophagus, it burns.

Linking Stress and Heartburn

What goes on in your brain affects what goes on in your stomach. Just thinking about tasty food can get your stomach juices flowing. A stressful situation can trigger your brain into a stress response. Here's how it works:

  • The stress response is what gets you to move away from danger. The last thing you need to worry about at these times is eating. So, during stress, your body produces hormones that slow down digestion. Food stays in your stomach longer. That means stomach acids have more time to move up into your esophagus.

  • The stress response may make you more sensitive to pain. Studies have shown that stress does not increase the acidity of your stomach juices. But, when these juices back up into your esophagus, you may be more sensitive to them. You may sense pain more easily when you're stressed.

  • The links between stress and heartburn work both ways. The brain and the digestive system are so closely tied that digestive symptoms can trigger the stress response. Stress can make heartburn worse. Heartburn can make stress worse. That can turn into a vicious cycle.

What You Can Do

How do you know if stress is contributing to your heartburn? You will probably have other symptoms of stress that go along with heartburn. These could include headache, stiff neck, trouble sleeping, restlessness, anxiety, irritability, and trouble concentrating.

Reducing your stress may help reduce your heartburn symptoms. Try these tips for dealing with stress:

  • Don't smoke or drink. Both can cause heartburn.
  • Get some exercise. It helps reduce stress and aids digestion.
  • Try mind-body stress reducers. Examples are meditation, deep breathing, yoga, and guided relaxation.
  • Get a good night’s sleep as often as possible.
  • Avoid late-night snacking to relieve stress. Going to bed with a full stomach leads to acid reflux and heartburn.
  • Make some attitude adjustments. Try to be less controlling and more accepting.
  • Talk to someone about your stress. Just confiding in a friend can help. If you need more feedback, talk to your doctor.

Stress can be a major contributor to heartburn. But, there can be many other causes, too. These include being overweight, eating heartburn-producing foods, drinking too much coffee, smoking, and eating too close to bedtime. Frequent heartburn can also be a warning sign for several important medical conditions. If you have heartburn twice a week or more, talk to your doctor.

Key Takeaways

  • Stress can contribute to heartburn and make heartburn worse.
  • Stress may slow down digestion and make you more sensitive to heartburn.
  • Stress usually causes other symptoms along with heartburn.
  • Reducing stress may help reduce heartburn.
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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jun 4, 2016

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View Sources

Medical References

  1. Tips to Manage Anxiety and Stress. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. https://www.adaa.org/tips-manage-anxiety-and-stress
  2. An Integrative Approach to GERD. University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. http://www.fammed.wisc.edu/files/webfm-uploads/documents/outreach/im/module_gerd_patient.pdf
  3. The gut-brain connection. Harvard Medical School. http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/the-gut-brain-connection
  4.  Stress and the Gut. UNC Center for GI & Motility Disorders. http://www.med.unc.edu/ibs/files/educational-gi-handouts/Stress%20and%20the%20Gut.pdf

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