9 November 10 Stress, Diet & Your Gut

Does stress throw your gut into a tailspin? Do certain foods or beverages make you miserable - cause pain, cramping, gas, diarrhea, heartburn, indigestion, belching, bloating, or nausea? If you said yes, then you probably have a sensitive gut! One of the most helpful, consumer-oriented publications that I have recently read on the gut-diet-stress connection is the Harvard Medical School Special Health Report, "The Sensitive Gut." The information contained in this post comes from this report, as well as from the Academy's of Nutrition and Dietetics Nutrition Care Manual.

Our gut and brain are intimately connected - nerve signals are sent to and from both organs. When people experience stress, their body prepares for "fight or flight." These neural signals put the gut on standby so that the body doesn't waste energy on digestion when it needs to focus on survival. This system works well when a true life-threatening stress exists, but ends up creating a functional gut disorder when it is chronic. Can chronic stress be the cause of your gut distress? Not all of us are aware of when we are experiencing chronic stress. Here are some common stress-related symptoms:

Physical: stiff muscles (especially in the neck and shoulders), headaches, sleeping problems, shakiness, recent loss of interest in sex, recent weight loss or gain and restlessness.

Behavior: procrastination, teeth grinding, difficulty finishing work, change in food or alcohol intake, increase in smoking, withdrawing from others and brooding about stressful situations.

Emotional: crying, feeling overwhelmed, can't relax, concentrate, remember or make decisions, nervousness, quick temper, depression and loss of sense of humor.

Chronic stress can be managed. What works for you? For many, exercise, cognitive behavior therapy (learning how to change negative self-talk), relaxation techniques (e.g. deep breathing, meditation, massage, tai chi, and yoga) and antidepressant medication are effective.


Stress can cause or make heartburn worse. What is heartburn? It could be reflux or GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease) - the back-flow of stomach acid into the esophagus. A working sphincter is supposed to prevent back-flow, but damage over time can make it leaky. Acid reflux can cause pain and damage to the esophagus. If you have chronic heartburn, please get it checked by your physician for appropriate treatment. Diet and lifestyle changes might not be enough - you might need GERD medication.

Some factors can make GERD worse, so take a look at the list below.

Foods/beverages: alcohol, caffeine (especially coffee), chocolate, high-fat foods (especially fried foods), mint and carbonated drinks (e.g. soft drinks).

Eating patterns: eating large meals, lying down within 3 hours after eating or not staying upright after eating (e.g. bending over, straining, etc).

Other factors: smoking, being overweight or obese and certain medications (e.g. oral contraceptives, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, bronchodilators, osteoporosis drugs, certain antidepressants, and calcium-channel blockers).

Tips to help you control GERD symptoms:

  • Eat smaller meals: eat 3-5 smaller meals instead of 1-2 large meals.
  • Avoid foods that "burn" after eating.
  • Stay upright for 3 hours or more after eating.
  • Avoid tight belts or waistbands while you eat.
  • Eat in a calm and relaxing environment.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Wait at least 2 hours after eating a meal before exercising vigorously.
  • Sleep with the head of your bed frame raised about 6 inches.

Tracking Can Help

Do you know which foods make your heartburn or reflux worse? Tracking your food and beverage intake will help you identify dietary triggers. I found MyNetDiary to be extremely helpful in identifying dietary components and amounts that trigger my GERD symptoms. Now that I know my triggers, I can avoid them to help manage my GERD.

Katherine Isacks, MPS, RD
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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.


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