Stress Related Heartburn
Over the years, many people have conjectured that heartburn is the result of stress. Indeed, they were right. While some still suggest that heartburn is not related or caused by stress, basic, well-accepted notions of human physiology would indicate otherwise.
The Effects of Stress on Digestion
Stress has been implicated with a lot of chronic conditions in the human body, including heartburn. The reason for this is that stress the body’s response to stress is to release a variety of signaling chemicals with body-wide effects.
In response to stress in the short term, the body releases norepinephrine and epinephrine. These compounds are what activate the so-called “fight or flight” system of the body. This is known scientifically as the sympathetic nervous system.
Activating the sympathetic nervous system heightens blood flow to the muscles and decreases blood flow to “resting” organs like the digestive tract. This is a rather smart system as it allows us to temporarily “turn off” organs which do not need to be functioning every second of the day until we can escape from danger.
However, for the digestive system, the end result of sympathetic activation in response to stress is the inhibition of peristalsis. Peristalsis is the contraction of smooth muscle that propels food along the digestive tract. Prolonged inhibition of peristalsis results in hypomotility (slow movement of foodstuffs along the digestive tract) and hypomotility is an important factor in chronic heartburn (GERD) (1).
To put it in simpler terms: stress (at least in the short-term) slows down the digestive system, and the end result is an increased likelihood of getting heartburn.
Furthermore, in the response to long-term stress, the body produces cortisol. Cortisol has two relevant side effects: increased production of stomach acid and increased inflammatory response. Increased production of stomach acid can lead to heartburn, and an increased inflammatory response can increase heartburn symptoms.
Remedies for Stress-Related Heartburn
Ideally, the best long-term solution for stress-induced heartburn is to de-stress your life. However, in today’s economy, moving into a less-stressful job and working less hours may not be a viable option.
While in the long-term you want to remove stressful events out of your life, here are two surprisingly effective heartburn remedies for stress:
- In response to short-term stress, try chewing a piece of gum. Not only does saliva help reduce heartburn (as mentioned on the Heartburn Remedies homepage), but the act of chewing helps promote peristalsis, counteracting the inhibition of digestion caused by the epinephrines.
- In response to long-term stress, eating small but regular meals of carbohydrates and protein can be very effective. This works on two fronts: eating carbohydrates and protein stimulates the release of insulin, and insulin counteracts the negative effects of cortisol. Note that a very small bit of food (even just 100-200 calories worth) can stimulate a strong insulin response capable of blunting cortisol. As an added bonus, eating small, regular meals are beneficial simply because large meals can lead to heartburn.
Stress and Heartburn Wrap-Up
To wrap everything up: yes, stress can cause heartburn. The best thing you can do is try to de-stress your life as much as possible, but in today’s society, there are limits to how much we can change.
The minute you start feeling stressed out, start chewing a piece of gum. Eat a small meal every few hours during the most stressful portion of your day which consists of some carbohydrates and protein. By taking these two simple and inexpensive steps, you can significantly reduce your run-ins with stress-related heartburn, all without the use of expensive medicine.
Kamiya T, Adachi H, Joh T. Relationship between gastric motility and the pathophysiology of GERD. Nippon Rinsho. 2007 May;65(5):836-9.