Your stomach’s in knots and you have the sudden urge to run to the bathroom. But what is causing this problem? Is it something you ate, a medical condition or too much stress or anxiety?
Experts provide suggestions for figuring out what’s actually causing gastrointestinal problems, and if there is any link to anxiety and stress.
Kristen K. Brown, a celebrity stress coach and the “Queen of Stress Relief,” said in an email that a common symptom of anxiety and stress is stomach issues.
“Take a quick life inventory,” Brown said. “If your schedule has been tight or you're going through some difficult challenges at work or at home, stress could definitely be a contributing factor to your stomach problems. And often when we are stressed, we become emotional eaters of foods that may not be the healthiest or that we don't normally eat, which can lead to stomach problems as well.”
She added that other psychological conditions can lead to stomach problems, such as depression.
Elika Kormeili, a licensed therapist and founder of Center for Healthy and Happy Living, said in an email that stress can lead to gastrointestinal issues like stomach ulcers, gas, diarrhea, costipation and bloating. Sometimes stress can increase your chances of suffering from colitis and irritable bowel syndrome as well.
“Keep in mind that research has shown that stress weakens the immune system,” Kormeili said.
“Typically, when GI problems are due to stress and anxiety, symptoms worsen during periods of heightened stress. When faced with stress and anxiety, some people scream, others cope using food/drugs/alcohol, and still others present with somatic problems (physical complaints). Typically, if you take a detailed history of the physical symptoms, you can trace it back to periods of [heightened] stress and anxiety (poor emotional coping).”
She added that any psychological conditions could lead to stomach problems, since they are an additional stressor for the body to handle.
To help determine if stomach problems are due to diet or other medical issues, she said to first keep a detailed food journal, including the types of foods you’re eating, the time and day you ate certain foods, and any symptoms. You might see patterns, but sometimes it takes a couple days for symptoms of food intolerances to appear.
Dr. David Clarke, president of the Psychophysiologic Disorders Association, said in an email that it can be difficult to distinguish the cause of stomach issues.
“Some clues that symptoms are most likely to be stress-related include symptoms that begin soon after a traumatic event, symptoms that do not occur or are much less severe when the client is in an environment where they feel safe (such as their home), symptoms that follow ingestion of certain foods only some of the time not all of the time, diarrhea that alternates with constipation, co-existence of symptoms in multiple other body locations, pain that migrates from place to place in the abdomen, pain that is relieved after a bowel movement and pain located in a very small area (a few inches in diameter or smaller),” Clarke said.
Erena DiGonis, a licensed psychotherapist and certified health coach, said in an email that last year she dealt with at least two clients who suffered from GI problems due to stress and anxiety. In both cases, they went to doctors who diagnosed them with either irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease, without looking at their stress levels or diet. Both clients were under high levels of stress, and one specifically also had a poor diet, leading to explosive diarrhea.
“Stress and stress hormones are inflaming,” DiGonis said. “Food intolerance inflames the gut as well.”
Frank Sileo, a licensed psychologist who suffers from Crohn’s disease, IBS and lactose intolerance, said that although stress and anxiety can make existing GI disorders worse, they cannot cause disorders such as Crohn’s or colitis.
“Gastroenterologists can perform a variety of tests to ascertain if the problem is more severe or is related to a food allergy or intolerance,” Sileo said. “As stated earlier, don't play your own doctor. An accurate diagnosis can lead to effective treatment.”
He added that trauma, including past sexual abuse, can be a risk factor for GI problems.
“Although medical treatment is first and foremost in the treatment of GI issues, don't underestimate the importance of psychological factors and that talking to a mental health professional can be extremely helpful,” Sileo said.
Read my next article that will discuss how to relieve your gastrointestinal symptoms by reducing your stress and anxiety levels.
Brown, Kristen K. Email interview. Nov. 5, 2012.
Kormeili, Elika. Email interview. Nov. 5, 2012.
Clarke, David. Email interview. Nov. 5, 2012.
DiGonis, Erena. Email interview. Nov. 5, 2012.
Sileo, Frank. Email interview. Nov. 5, 2012.
Reviewed November 15, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith