Stop stressing! Doctors say it can be the reason behind your bloating

Read all about stress bloating and understand the impact of stress on your gut health and digestive system.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Jan 20, 2024 | 3:00 PMUpdatedJan 20, 2024 | 3:00 PM

Stress is a known cause of bloating. (Commons)

Bloating is frequently attributed solely to dietary factors, often blaming specific foods or eating habits. While certain foods, especially those high in fats, sugars, or known to produce gas, can cause bloating, the root cause isn’t always dietary.

This misconception causes many to overlook the significant impact stress can have on our digestive system.

Stress can alter the balance of bacteria in our gut and affect digestive processes, leading to symptoms like bloating. This stress-induced bloating can occur even without dietary triggers, highlighting the intricate relationship between our mental state and gastrointestinal health.

Recognising this connection allows us to address bloating not just through dietary changes but also by managing stress.

“Bloating is a common symptom of what we call functional bowel disease. It is defined as multiple gastrointestinal symptoms in the absence of demonstrable pathology. Stress is known to aggravate functional bowel disease,” explains Dr Rajeev Jayadevan, a renowned gastroenterologist from Kochi, Kerala, while speaking to South First.

Doctors emphasise that stress bloating is a prevalent issue, with stress causing various gastrointestinal symptoms, including bloating and discomfort. This condition results from the complex interaction between the brain and the gut, often referred to as the gut-brain axis.

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Understanding stress bloating

Dr Jayadevan simplifies the concept of “functional bowel disease” for laypeople, stating that it “refers to a condition where patients may complain of symptoms like bloating or abdominal pain, yet conventional diagnostic techniques often reveal no overt abnormalities.”

In these cases, ulcers, cancer, stones, or infections are typically not detected. Symptoms are often related to gut motility and hypersensitivity.

Since internal organs, particularly one related to the digestive system, aren’t under voluntary control, they may manifest symptoms based on the gut’s condition. For instance, feeling gassy after eating could lead to bloating or pain.

Stress can disrupt the normal balance of gut bacteria, leading to digestive issues like bloating. This disruption can affect the body’s ability to digest food properly, potentially causing an overproduction of gas, the primary cause of bloating.

“This is why not everyone with this condition will have the same symptoms every day. There are times when they feel worse, and other times when they may feel better. This variation may or may not correlate with what they eat, how much they exercise, and how stressed they feel on a particular day or week,” Dr Jayadevan adds.

Meanwhile, Dr Sushma Gopalan, Consultant Child Life Services at Aster CMI Hospital in Bengaluru, notes that experiencing bloating is not uncommon, and stress can significantly contribute to this discomfort.

“Stress-related bloating can manifest due to various physiological responses triggered by the body’s stress mechanisms,” Dr Gopalan tells South First.

The sensation of bloating differs from distention, the visible inflation of the abdomen, although these two often occur together. Stress and poor sleep can contribute to visceral hypersensitivity, where gut nerves become overly sensitive, enhancing the sensation of bloating without an actual increase in gas production.

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How stress manifests as bloating

From a medical perspective, stress-related bloating can manifest due to various physiological responses triggered by the body’s stress mechanisms, explains Dr Gopalan.

Stress activates the body’s “fight or flight” response, diverting blood flow away from the digestive system, slowing down digestion and causing bloating, she adds.

Furthermore, stress alters the balance of gut bacteria, impacting the microbiome’s ability to regulate digestion and produce essential enzymes, contributing to bloating.

Stress may influence gas production in the digestive tract, leading to abdominal distension and discomfort, she says.

Symptoms to look out for 

Dr Jayadevan notes that bloating is a common symptom, along with upper abdominal pain, belching, reflux, acidity, and often, there is an overlap between these symptoms.

Dr Gopalan elaborates on symptoms of stress-associated bloating, including a feeling of fullness in the stomach or abdomen, not necessarily due to overeating. This is often accompanied by visible swelling or enlargement of the abdominal area, known as abdominal distention.

There’s also an increase in gas production, leading to excessive belching or flatulence. Many experience abdominal pain ranging from mild to severe cramps. Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhoea, can occur, often fluctuating with stress levels.

Additionally, there’s increased sensitivity in the abdomen, where normal digestive processes might feel unusually uncomfortable or painful. These symptoms can vary in their presence and intensity depending on individual stress levels and other lifestyle factors.

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How to manage stress bloating

Identifying specific stressors in your life, such as work pressures or personal challenges, can help manage stress-related bloating, Dr Gopalan advices. She also suggests watching for changes in eating habits during stressful periods, as stress might lead to irregular or rushed meals, contributing to bloating.

Typically, bloating associated with stress subsides once the stressor is no longer present. However, some individuals may experience persistent bloating due to changes in the gut-brain connection or ongoing alterations in gut function.

Incorporate stress-reducing activities into your routine, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or yoga, to help regulate the body’s stress response. Along with a balanced diet, hydrating oneself is also important to prevent bloating, doctors advice.

“To manage stress bloating effectively, it’s crucial to address both the stress and its gastrointestinal manifestations,” emphasises Dr Gopalan.

She insists that if stress-related stomach issues persist, it might be necessary to consult a healthcare professional, such as a gastroenterologist, for further evaluation and management.

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