You know that feeling when something’s just not quite right in your stomach, but you’re not sure why? Well, you’re not alone. But when life gets busy, figuring out the cause of your upset stomach is probably at the bottom of your to-do list. Nevertheless, your upset stomach demands your attention.
An upset stomach can be a signal from your body telling you something’s wrong. Or, it can be a nagging reminder of not-so-ideal choices in diet, behavior, or lifestyle.
With a little insight to why your body reacts in certain ways – and how it affects your stomach – you’ll be able to identify and understand the causes of an upset stomach.
How’s Your Sleep?
Any new parent will tell you that sleep deprivation is a very real thing that affects your mood, your productivity levels, and your overall ability to function normally. But have you ever considered how your sleep schedule can affect an upset stomach?
When you sleep, proteins are released from your cells as part of your body’s regeneration process. Each protein is responsible for different things within your body. Small proteins called cytokines contribute to rebuilding your immune system, inducing or controlling stomach irritation based on how often they’re released.
When this process is interrupted – for example, you have a night of restless sleep – irritation can occur in your body.
This irritation can affect your stomach in a negative way. It often shows up as a stomach ache, heartburn, or bloating. You might experience mild stomach irritation when you wake up, or throughout the day, or you may experience more persistent, intense discomfort that has a serious effect on your overall health.1
Although getting enough sleep can be a challenge when juggling a busy schedule, it’s actually one of the simplest ways to remedy symptoms of an upset stomach.
Are You Stressed?
Almost everyone experiences stress in one form or another – and this stress can wreak havoc on your stomach. The idea that stress, once called “General Adaptation Syndrome,” affects our physical health dates all the way back to the ancient Greeks.2
Whether you experience temporary stress (like running late for work), or you deal with a lot of ongoing stress (a high-intensity job, for example), it can affect your brain. And your brain communicates with all of your organs. So any stress or anxiety you’re feeling, no matter how small, can trigger a stomach-ache.
Your brain is in constant communication with your adrenal system. When you experience stress, this system kicks in, preparing your body to either fight or flee. Historically speaking, your body doesn’t know the difference between the stress that comes from a dinosaur chasing you or from getting a speeding ticket on the highway. Stress is stress as far as your adrenal system is concerned.
Medical studies show that there is a direct correlation between occupational stress and upset stomach symptoms, which further supports the idea that even when you are not in a majorly stressful situation, it can still affect your stomach in a negative way.3
So the next time you experience a stress-induced stomach-ache, try easing your mind with meditation, aromatherapy, or some light exercise.
What Are You Eating?
The simplest way to relieve an upset stomach is often to eliminate certain foods from your diet. You’re probably familiar with the extreme difference in the way your stomach feels after eating chili dogs vs. a salad for lunch. Splurges are splurges… but what about those everyday choices you make in between those splurges?
Studies suggest that specific foods can trigger acid reflux, or generally upset stomach symptoms, in adults. Often, these foods are spicy, acidic, or high in fat – think hot sauce, cheeseburgers, coffee, or orange juice.4
Your tolerance for certain foods can also change as you age.
It’s important to review a recent mental list of what you’ve eaten if you’re experiencing an upset stomach. Certain common intolerances, like lactose intolerance, occur when your stomach doesn’t have the digestive enzymes it needs to process dairy.5
Simply put, once you identify certain foods that lead to stomach upset, removing them from your diet is the easiest way to curb the uncomfortable or painful side effects that occur after eating them.
Easier said than done? Don’t worry – there is hope if you simply can’t entirely cut out things like coffee, hot sauce, or ice cream. For intolerances like dairy, it’s easy to replace that necessary digestive enzyme by taking an over-the-counter supplemental enzyme, so your stomach can once again process dairy as it would normally.
As for spicy, acidic, and fatty foods, research suggests that simply consuming smaller quantities (or lowering the frequency) can ease your stomach problems. Remember to balance triggering foods with increased quantities of proteins, starches, fruits, and vegetables. These are more neutral and an easy swap when planning your next meal.6
How Much Are You Eating?
Eating too much, or too little, is a very common cause of an upset stomach.
When you consume too much food at one time, also called binge eating, your stomach capacity is stretched and your digestive tract is stressed. This increase in calories and volume can lead to indigestion and upset stomach symptoms, which usually pass once your body has time to digest and regulate. When overeating is a regular occurrence, however, these symptoms can feel almost constant, leaving you with an uncomfortable, ‘stuffed’ feeling long after your meal is over.7 To avoid this discomfort, remember to eat slowly, and chew thoroughly.
Stop eating as soon as you start to receive mental and physical signals of fullness.
Alternately, if you don’t consume enough food, you can also experience stomach pain. The feeling of hunger hits you when a hormone is released to let you know you are hungry, known as gastric ghrelin in medical terms.8 This feeling is what gives you the drive to eat. Even when you ignore that feeling, your body continues to send the signal of hunger, which causes stomach discomfort (and that distinct feeling of being “hangry”). To remedy this, remember to carry small snacks during busy days. Also try to eat small meals several times a day.
Are You Feeling Emotional?
In addition to eating something weird, or drinking to much of something that doesn’t agree with your stomach, a major cause of stomach pain or discomfort can stem from your emotions. Have you ever experienced that feeling of butterflies in your stomach? If so, that’s a pretty accurate description of the way nerves or anxiety can trigger an upset stomach. When you feel a stomach-ache, check in with yourself, and see if that discomfort is connected to a feeling of fear, anxiety, nervousness, or depression.
Your mental well-being is strongly connected to your stomach’s well-being. While that can initially sound a bit daunting, the good news is that your thoughts can also help calm your upset stomach. There is medical research that claims that thoughts that cause relaxation and happiness have an equal impact on your GI tract as those that cause fear and anxiety. So, take a deep breath the next time you feel ‘butterflies.’ And, see if you can ease your stomach-ache by clearing those negative thoughts.9
Could You Be Pregnant?
Early symptoms of pregnancy are sometimes easy to miss because they are so similar to more common everyday ailments. Morning sickness can be confused with a stomach bug, and feelings of fatigue or moodiness can be brushed off as side effects of a busy schedule. If you are experiencing routine nausea or upset stomach symptoms, it is worth asking yourself if pregnancy could be a possibility.
One of the most common first-trimester pregnancy symptoms is an upset stomach, and this is caused by the large reproductive hormonal changes that are quickly occuring on a daily basis within a woman’s body.10 While this possible cause of nausea isn’t relevant to everyone, it’s something to consider.
Listen to Your Body
An upset stomach can mean many things. Asking yourself the questions posed here can help you identify and address your own health concerns. Your body will thank you when you listen to its signals! And as always, be sure to consult your doctor if symptoms last more than a few days. Or, if they get worse over time without relief.
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