What Is A 'Nervous Stomach' And How You Can Help Relieve It

The medical community once saw ailments of the mind and body as two separate issues, requiring different modalities of treatment. With the discovery of the mind-body connection, however, we are learning that our emotional experience of the world can have a very real and profound impact on the way our physical body moves through it.

Psychology Today explains that when our brain perceives that a threat is near, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks into gear, stimulating the adrenal glands to produce hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which trigger a flight-or-flight response. And while this response can be life-saving in the face of real danger, oftentimes our brain can't differentiate between stress related to a physical threat and everyday stressors that come from things like work, intrapersonal relationships, and the like.

If you've ever felt like your guts were tied in knots before a big presentation or a date you've been looking forward to, it's more than likely that you experienced "nervous stomach" — a common symptom of our SNS's flight-or-flight response. Let's take a closer look at what "nervous stomach" is and how you can find some relief from it.

Why does nervous stomach happen and what does it feel like?

The gastrointestinal tract is run by its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system (ENS). During fight-or-flight, the hormones released by the SNS alert the nerves in the ENS of the perceived threat (per Medical News Today). In response, processes carried out by the stomach are slowed down so that the blood that would usually be directed toward the GI tract can instead be redirected to the lungs and muscles. This can elicit symptoms that many refer to as "nervous stomach." While some people may see the symptoms dissipate after the stressor has been eliminated, people who experience chronic stress may have ongoing stomach issues as a result. What's more, stress can also throw off the delicate balance of the bacteria in your gut microbiome, contributing to further intestinal distress (per Health Match).

While "nervous stomach" is not formally recognized as a condition by the medical community, the symptoms of it are well documented. Medical News Today points out that, oftentimes, "nervous stomach" can mimic other gastrointestinal conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and gastroenteritis. Common symptoms associated with nervous stomach can include indigestion, constipation, cramping, bloating, changes in appetite, and diarrhea (per Anxiety & Depression Association of America).

How to relieve symptoms of nervous stomach

Because stress is the root cause of "nervous stomach," treatment often begins with stress management. If you're experiencing chronic stress that keeps your gut in a perpetual state of discomfort, Medical News Today recommends making an appointment with a therapist who can help you to address the major stressors in your life and find healthy coping mechanisms. Anxiety medication has also proven to be effective against the symptoms of nervous stomach.

To counter your overactive SNS, Health Match also recommends finding activities that activate the parasympathetic nervous system — otherwise known as the "rest and digest" system. Meditation, deep breathing, and gentle exercise — like yoga or a nice walk outside — can help to do that.

Symptoms of a nervous stomach can also be alleviated or exacerbated by the foods we eat. While a diet rich in fiber, whole foods, and lots of water can improve symptoms, foods and beverages containing dairy and caffeine may cause further irritation and should be avoided.

Nervous stomach also responds well to herbal treatments. Herbs like peppermint, lemon balm, and lavender have antispasmodic properties that can help relieve stomach pain associated with cramping, while ginger is a great option for nausea. When used long term, adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha can decrease your body's sensitivity to stressors, providing an improved state of balance.