You have a big presentation within an hour, and while your colleagues are complaining about having butterflies in their stomach or sweaty palms, you feel nasty acid rising back into your throat. GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disease, also commonly known as acid reflux, can escalate with rising levels of stress.
However, while occasional stress may exacerbate acid reflux symptoms, it’s unlikely to be the underlying cause of your chronic heartburn. Truth be told, the connection between stress and acid reflux is a tricky one. One man’s adrenalin rush is another man’s GERD! What stress does definitely do is put your gut into “shock,” which is why stress and acid reflux go hand in hand.
Does Stress Really Worsen GERD?
Science reveals a direct connection between stress and acid reflux. When you read those words, you would probably think, “Oh that’s certainly true. My acid reflux gets a lot worse when I am stressed out because my stomach is producing extra acid”. You couldn’t be more wrong!
Here’s the truth – Stomach acid production GOES down with stress). Sounds unbelievable? Well, it’s not. While the stomach produces lesser concentrated acid during periods of chronic stress, it’s also true that your acid reflux worsens during a stressful situation. So, why is that?
The human body is thousands of years old. And sadly, the design hasn’t upgraded at all in all these years. Centuries ago, the only stress primitive man faced was being attacked by a predator. Today the scenario is much different. You can be stressed by a looming deadline or a boss who dislikes you, the fear of being unable to repay your mortgage on time, or be under emotional stress from a complicated relationship. In today’s world, our stress is no longer fleeting (after all, the threat of a tiger attack lasted only a few moments, and didn’t become a looming worry you lived with day in and day out). However, since the design of the human body hasn’t adapted to our current stressful lifestyle yet, any stressful situation still puts us in a Fight or Flight mode.
During periods of stress, the body diverts the blood away to three major regions:
- The Legs for Flight,
- The Hands for Fight, and
- The Brain for Quick Thinking on the feet to avert an attack
As digestion is not an essential function, the blood supply to the gut is stunted. Since digesting a meal isn’t a priority for acute survival, the secretion of ALL the digestive enzymes and juices decreases with stress. According to Dr. Tonia Winchester who is a renowned Naturopathic Doctor, this leads to lower levels of concentrated stomach acids (HCl). However, as we are still feeding the body under periods of stress, the body is then forced to create poorer quality stomach acids to somehow manage to digest the meal you’ve eaten. And since this stomach acid is not of high quality or concentrated enough to do the job well enough, the body has to produce more quantities of the acid to accomplish the task at hand.
Now you can imagine, why there is more acid coming back up the esophagus, causing heart burn, reflux and indigestion. But the connection between stress and acid reflux doesn’t end here. To throw in a triple whammy, the LES or the lower esophageal sphincter that works as a lid between the esophagus and the stomach to keep stomach contents (and acids) contained, shuts off tightly only when the body is producing high quality stomach acids. The quantity of acid doesn’t regulate how tightly it will shut off. When the LES is closed, digestion typically functions well and there isn’t much scope for indigestion, acid reflux, or heart burn. However, since the stomach is producing a crappy quality HCl in more quantity to accomplish the task of digesting your meal, the LES becomes floppy, allowing all the excess acid to flow back into the esophagus.
A singular stressful event, like a job interview can bring gastrointestinal problems, like a ‘perceived’ feeling of rising stomach acids, but in sufferers of chronic stress, living with constant acid reflux becoming the harsh reality. With continuous stress, the gut eventually gets accustomed to only produce poor quality stomach acids in excess amounts, making GERD or heartburn a chronic problem.
With stress there is also less protective mucus production so stomach acids can potentially injure the fragile lining of the gut, furthering digestive distress and inflammation, causing ulcers, poor nutrient absorption, and ultimately weight gain. So you see – the real story about stress and acid reflux is rather complicated.
Reducing Stress Levels is the Key to a Happier Gut
So, can stress cause acid reflux to flare up? As you can see, the answer is YES. “When the brain feels severely stressed, it unleashes a cascade of hormones that can put the whole digestive system in an uproar”, according to Dr. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University who is an expert on stress and its impact on the human body. If you lead a stressful life and are tired of acid reflux hampering the quality of your life, lifestyle changes are the key to recovery. Reduce the levels of stress, and you will have a happier gut.
Unfortunately, most doctors will tell you that the standard treatment for acid reflux is PPIs and antacids. And while medication for GERD and anxiety can treat the symptoms; they will not target the actual underlying problem, i.e., excess production of poor quality stomach acids because of high levels of stress. Often times, acid reflux is accompanied by bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea in the chronically stressed. And some PPIs can worsen diarrhea and constipation.
On the other hand, natural supplements that heal the gut from within are a far safer (and more effective) solution to combating oxidative stress and acid reflux. Acid reflux and stress natural remedies like probiotics, apple cider vinegar and nutritional supplements designed to alleviate acid reflux symptoms, strengthen the gut.
11 Easy Steps to Manage Acid Reflux and Stress
Changing your eating habits to adopt a balanced diet is the right way to help heal your gut. Since stress and acid reflux are closely linked, it’s also worth trying coping techniques to manage stress levels in your life to help reduce your risk of conditions like IBS, GERD, heart diseases and depression.
- Avoid known heartburn triggers. These vary from one individual to another, but chocolate, spicy foods, citrus fruits, peppermint infused foods and full-fat dairy products are common culprits.
- Create a relaxing ambience at meal times. Do not rush through a meal or eat at your desk. Eating too much too soon puts extra stress on your stomach, and you want to ideally avoid that. Linger over your meal. In fact, don’t even watch something stressful on TV while you’re eating. It’s better to watch a comedy sitcom as opposed to something gory or filled with violence during dinner time.
- Chew your food more thoroughly. Digestion begins in the mouth, and when you chew your food properly, even poor quality stomach acid is better able to accomplish proper digestion. Try chewing on a piece of bread for 16 to 32 times, and you’ll notice that it completely breaks down into sugars by the time you swallow. Additional bonus – chewing carbs thoroughly also eliminates craving for dessert afterwards, as your body is already satisfied with the sugar you’ve supplied! Challenge yourself to make each meal last up to 30 minutes. Use a timer if necessary!
- Drink a tall glass of water half an hour before your meal. This helps buffer the stomach lining and gives the gut the confidence to produce higher quality stomach acids for improved digestion. It will also flush away any remnant acids from your stomach so that your freshly eaten meal is quickly processed by highly concentrated stomach acid. Allow yourself only a few sips of water during a meal. And avoid drinking water for half an hour post meal, unless it’s an emergency. Following this practice religiously will nurture the digestive system to function optimally.
- Avoid a nap immediately after a meal. This makes it much easier for stomach acid to travel back up the esophagus.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation puts your body under stress, so aim for 8 hours of restful sleep every night.
- Deep breathing exercises are great for combating stress. Also, increased oxygen to the brain helps you calm down when you feel the perceived symptoms of stress-induced GERD.
- Try out natural supplements that help alleviate oxidative stress and acid reflux Eat more foods rich in fiber and friendly gut flora to help correct imbalances in the small intestine, along with digestive enzymes.
- It helps release feel-good hormones that does wonders for stress relief, and is a great way to get away from your office or household chores too! A gentle walk post a meal helps regulate blood sugar levels in diabetics (3). A gentle walk also stimulates nerve ending in the feet that further aid in digestion.
- Avoid caffeine, smoking, and alcohol as these relax the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) to allow acid easy access up the food pipe. None of these are good for stress either.
- Soothe away your stress with a massage. This also improves blood circulation to rejuvenate you.