Gut reaction: can stress cause stomach pain and bloating?

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Scientists believe there are a number of different reasons why people develop digestive symptoms and disorders. Likely candidates might be genetics, chronic stress or intestinal infections. Another big contributor to digestive issues can be gut flora imbalance.

There are various factors that can cause imbalance or damage to the gut flora such as: modern diet, stress, antibiotics, infections, alcohol, pollution, steroids and the use of the oral contraceptive pill.

The exact cause is often difficult to determine. However, what we can do is to look at how to best to heal our guts and restore the balance of gut flora.

The best and most natural way of improving our gut health is to make some subtle changes to our lifestyle and what we eat. When our gut flora is imbalanced we become more sensitive to stress and certain foods. By changing our lifestyle and what we eat, we can better control these symptoms. Once we can control the symptoms we can start improving the balance of the gut flora.

Spending time with family and friends can help ease your stressful life and have a positive effect on your overall health

Making changes to what we eat

If you regularly suffer from digestive symptoms it might be that your gut flora is imbalanced or damaged. This is when the balance between good and bad bacteria has been altered. When this happens your gut becomes very sensitive to certain carbohydrates found in some foods. These carbohydrates are also known as FODMAPs, which is an acronym for:  Fermentable, Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. It might sound complicated but they are simply fermentable carbohydrates found naturally in the foods we eat.

Here are some examples of foods, where FODMAPs can be found:

Monosaccharides (Fructose):

Honey, apples, mango, pear, watermelon, high fructose corn syrup

Oligosaccharides (Fructans):

Artichokes, garlic, leek, onion, spring onion (white part), shallots, wheat, rye, barley, insulin

Galacto-Oligosaccharides (GOS):

Legume beans (eg. baked beans, kidney beans, bortolotti beans), lentils, chickpeas

Disaccharides (Lactose):

Milk, ice cream, custard, dairy desserts, milk powder, yoghurt, soft unripened cheeses

Polyols (sorbitol and mannitol):

Apples, apricots, nectarines, pears, plums, prunes, mushrooms, sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, maltitol and isomalt

FODMAPs tend to cause issues to sensitive guts because they are especially difficult for your body to digest. These carbohydrates (FODMAPs) are not absorbed properly in the small  intestine. So when they reach the large intestine the billions of bacteria that naturally line the gut start fermenting the FODMAPs. All of this is perfectly natural and most people don’t have trouble with the amounts of FODMAPs encountered in a typical diet. However, people with a sensitive or damaged gut seem to have a lower tolerance for some of these FODMAPs and the fermentation process results in excessive gas production, which causes the familiar symptoms of wind, bloating and discomfort.

Also, an osmotic effect occurs where the large intestine either looses or retains too much water. This can cause the symptoms of loose stools or diarrhoea and in other sufferers, constipation. When you increase your intake of FODMAPs your symptoms will also increase.

A temporary elimination of FODMAPs in your diet for a short period of time can help reduce and alleviate symptoms. Then reintroducing them in a measured way can help to not only identify your trigger foods but also how much of them you can tolerate.

The low FODMAP diet was initially developed for people with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) but has also been shown to help improve some other gastrointestinal problems and illnesses.

Lifestyle changes

Chronic stress and anxiety can have a damaging effect on your gut and it can be hard to get out of a vicious stress circle. Some ways to help lower stress include exercise, meditation, getting enough sleep, socialising and lowering your intake of caffeine and alcohol.

Alcohol and caffeine

Avoid using alcohol as a way of reducing stress and to self-medicate. It’s very damaging to the gut as it can kill good gut bacteria and even damage your gut wall. Alcohol in itself is a depressant and will do no good to your well being. It’s best to avoid alcohol if you have a sensitive gut and if you’re under stress. Instead, try some nice alcohol free alternatives such as mocktails or alcohol free beer.

Caffeine increases stress and the more you have, the more stressed you will feel. Caffeine such as coffee is also acidic and stimulates stomach acid, which can act as an irritant to people with sensitive guts. Avoid or limit your caffeine intake. Perhaps try caffeine free or half caff alternatives.


Lack of sleep or sufficient quality of sleep can have a bad effect on your gut. Your body needs time to recover from stress and sleep will help with this process. Make sure you prioritise getting 7-8 hours of sleep every night.


Spending time with family and friends can help ease your stressful life and have a positive effect on your overall health. Many of us live busy lifestyles but taking time out to speak with a friend or family can help give you another perspective and improve your overall attitude and health.


One of the most effective ways to boost overall health, reduce stress and help reduce gastrointestinal problems is exercise. Exercise in the form of Yoga, gym classes, jogging, or walking can all help improve your symptoms.

Before you start an exercise program, here are some tips:

  • Adapt your exercise regime according to how you feel and your symptoms. Do less high intensity training if your symptoms worsen and instead opt for something lighter like yoga or a brisk walk
  • Do something that you enjoy and try and keep it as regular as possible
  • Allow at least one hour between a meal and exercising
  • Include relaxation programs into your exercise regime, such as Yoga
  • Stay hydrated

Yoga and meditation

Studies have shown that Yoga, in particular, is one of the most effective tools for alleviating digestive symptoms as it focuses on deep breathing, de-stressing and restoring balance to the entire body.

Meditation is also widely known for its many positive effects. It can, for example, help reduce stress, anxiety, depression, improve communication, bring greater clarity to your thoughts and actions, strengthens concentration, increases self-awareness and also rebuild your energy reserves, especially during difficult or challenging times.


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