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.
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:
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.
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.
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.