- Diseases, Disorders & Conditions
Can you get a stomach ulcer from stress?
Is there a correlation between the gut and the brain?
If stress has become your daily companion, you may be wondering if stress could cause you a stomach ulcer. We hear it quite often in our daily conversations "he makes me so mad, I am getting an ulcer", "I have butterflies in my stomach" or "that bad situation just turned my stomach." The stomach has been associated with emotions for a very long time, and it comes natural to ponder about their effect on our stomachs. While we often figuratively link our gut with our emotions, we may debate if in the real world, you could essentially really wreck havoc on your gut from stress. The best way to determine this is by looking at what happens exactly to our bodies when we are stressed.
When we are stressed, a variety of physiological changes take place in our bodies. These changes are meant to help us better face our challenges, but in today's society, many of our challenges are mostly imagined. In the old days, we might have had to escape some wild animal that wished to devour us or we have had to combat against a person belonging to an enemy tribe; whereas nowadays, we may just be scared about flying, going to an interview or going to the dentist, as we imagine worst case scenarios that are most likely never to happen.
As we get stressed, our heart rates go up and the blood pressure may rise. To help us escape, our blood flow is taken away from our midsection, and is delivered to our arms and legs so we are able to flee. Blood will also flow more to our head to sharpen our sense and for quick thinking, putting us in an hyper-vigilant state, so necessary for survival. We are blessed with this heightened state of vigilance so we can react quickly to situations that can pose harm to us, but problems start when we are stuck in this state for too long, in a chronic state of stress.
Because as mentioned, blood flow is reduced from our midsection, a cascading chain of events takes place leading to digestive issues. According to Dr Mercola, stress causes the following issues in the digestive tract: decreased absorption of nutrients, less oxygen in the gut, up to four times less blood flow to digestive system and considerable decreased enzymatic output.
So if you think that your brain feels somewhat related to your gut, you are very close to the truth. Interestingly, the brain and the gut share the same type of tissue. Dr. Mercola explains how during fetal development, one blob of tissue turns into the central nervous system while the other develops into the enteric nervous system. Not only are both systems made of the same tissue, but they are also connected by the vagus nerve which explains why the moment you get nervous, you get that tense feeling in your stomach and even get the runs.The saying "a healthy mind in a healthy body" is therefore as close to the truth as it can get.
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So can stress really cause an ulcer?
Harvard researchers fully believe that the gut and the brain are closely connected indeed they claim that "the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected — so intimately that they should be viewed as one system." This is quite an interesting remark, that further proves a potential correlation between digestive problems and stress. Further on, there's more proof on "gut feelings". It was found that the stomach and the intestines are equipped with more nerve cells than the spinal cord, causing experts to give the digestive system the name of "mini brain." Additionally, it was found that surprisingly 95 percent of the body's serotonin is found in the digestive system and not the brain, explains Chris Woolston, M.S.
So let's take a closer look into the dynamics and the cascading chain of events that may lead to problems. We have seen how stress causes less oxygen and less blood flow to the upper gut and small intestine. As a result, the appetite is suppressed and food takes longer to be digested, causing it to remain in the stomach longer. As the undigested food piles up against the top portion of the stomach, it causes the esophageal sphincter to open, ultimately causing acid reflux and excessive churning of the stomach. At the same time, the lower intestines undergo rapid transit times. So with stress one thing is for sure, it could lead to stomach aches, nausea, and diarrhea, and chronic stress may aggravate conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and heartburn.
And what about ulcers? We often hear people says " the stress is making me get an ulcer!" but can this really happen? This seems to be a bit a subject of controversy. Dr. Oz claims that a while back it was believed that ulcers stemmed from stress, but now it seems like the majority of ulcers are actually caused by the presence of the bacteria helicobacter pylori which causes a bacterial infection. However, it has been theorized that stress ultimately may allow the infection to put roots by interfering with the balance of hydrochloric acid and the stomach's protective secretions. Robert Sapolsky, neuroendocrinologist, professor of biology, neuroscience, and neurosurgery believes that stress plays a role in about 30 to 65 percent of all ulcers, yet, several medical experts still think that this is still just an hypothesis.
Now in a third edition, Robert M. Sapolsky's acclaimed and successful Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers features new chapters on how stress affects sleep and addiction, as well as new insights into anxiety and personality disorder and the impact of spirituality on managing stress.