Don't Let Stress Stir Up Stomach Trouble

Feeling stressed out from juggling so many professional and personal tasks during the holidays can take its toll on your stomach.

When there is no physical diagnosis of an ulcer, upper gastrointestinal issues are called nonulcer dyspepsia. These issues, including chronic pain, bloating, cramps and acid reflux, are often associated with more stress in one’s life.

There are dozens of over-the-counter medications to treat acid reflux, or GERD, and ulcers — but no clear treatment for nonulcer dyspepsia, one of the most common and recurring upper-gut disorders that has no clear physical cause, and for which there is no diagnostic test (it is a clinical diagnosis).

A clinical diagnosis usually means that nothing comes up after in-depth diagnostics — such as an endoscopy, colonoscopy, abdominal ultrasound or CT scanning — that can be traced to the symptoms. That is, there are no objective signs of the commonly diagnosed causes of dyspepsia, such as duodenal ulcer, stomach ulcer, inflamed esophagus (esophagitis) and inflamed stomach (gastritis).

Stress and ‘Non-Ulcer’ Conditions
“Non-ulcer stomach pain or dyspepsia can definitely be exacerbated by stress during the holidays,” says Dr. Michael Sternthal, M.D., a gastroenterologist at the Baptist Endoscopy Center at Coral Springs, where patients can undergo an endoscopy or colonoscopy.

Stress can also be linked to other conditions associated with digestion, including Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), another functional disorder with symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal cramps.

“Sometimes, gastrointestinal disorders are functional and a person’s gut or intestinal system becomes hyper-sensitive,” says Dr. Sternthal. “The nerves of the gut represent a large nervous system of its own.”

During the holidays, stomach problems are not just the result of large family gatherings, hectic shopping and the stress associated with busier schedules. It’s also about over-indulging, says Dr. Sternthal.

“At this time of year, people tend to eat larger meals and more fatty meals, along with more chocolate and rich desserts,” he says. “That could present problems with people who tend to suffer from functional dyspepsia or GERD.”

When should you see a doctor?
Dr. Sternthal says that it may be time to see your doctor when symptoms worsen or last longer then usual, and when over-the-counter solutions such as antacids or medication for acid reflux don’t seem to be working or are required for prolonged use.

Here are signs that may indicate a visit to your doctor:

  • Stomach or digestive issues that occur more frequently or last longer than usual.
  • You start to lose weight inexplicably.
  • Acid reflux or other stomach upset wakes you up at night.
  • You have trouble swallowing (food gets stuck in your esophagus).
  • You find blood or red or black abnormalities in your stool

“The stress in our society continues to contribute to nonulcer upper dyspepsia and upper abdominal symptoms or stomach pains,” said Dr. Sternthal. “But if you have new symptoms or any of the above ‘alarm’ symptoms beyond your control, it’s time to re-visit these issues with your doctor.”

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