If you are struggling with gastritis and are wondering if it’s stress-induced gastritis or caused by something else, this article is for you.
We continue to learn how our mental health and stress levels have an enormous impact – for better or worse – on our physical health.
You probably have personal experience with how high stress causes your shoulders to feel as tense as stone and anxious thoughts keep you tossing and turning at night, but did you know that stress can actually make your stomach inflamed?
Today we’re talking about stress-induced gastritis: what it is, what the symptoms are, and what you can do about it to feel better (don’t worry, we won’t just tell you to “relax”).
Even though we are trained clinical nutritionists, we know that there are far more influences on your digestive system than just what you eat. We also know that your doctors and other healthcare professionals probably aren’t talking about these connections. The trouble is, if you ignore these whole-body connections, your chances of getting full relief from your gastritis are lower.
Let’s start at the beginning with what gastritis is.
Gastritis refers to your stomach being inflamed. Just like your skin can get red and swollen if you skin your knee or get a papercut, the lining of your digestive tract can get irritated, too.
Gastritis does not refer to a specific cause, however.
Picture this: you have a puddle of water on your kitchen floor. Is this spilled water from some exuberant hand washing or is the dishwasher leaking? Knowing why the puddle is there, to begin with, will dictate what you need to do to prevent the puddle from coming back.
Gastritis is similar in that we need to know why it happened to begin with in order to find the best solution for you to:
a) begin feeling better as quickly as possible
b) minimize the chances the gastritis will come back
Are you unique in your stomach woes? Probably not – gastritis is really common.
How common is gastritis?
Gastritis is actually quite common. Some estimates suggest that as many as 1 in 2 people have gastritis to some degree (1). Pretty wild, right?
Next: what does gastritis feel like?
Symptoms of stress-induced gastritis
Gastritis can make its presence known in a few different ways. Because the lining of your stomach is not fully healthy and intact, the symptoms that you feel are related to inflammation and irritation in your digestive tract.
Symptoms of stress-induced gastritis can include
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Bloating and loss of appetite
In some cases, people may also experience dizziness or fatigue.
You may also be dealing with lower amounts of stomach acid. Because of this, you’re not actually able to digest your food as well. This can lead to a domino chain reaction of a lot more uncomfortable symptoms, including:
How do you know for sure that you have gastritis and not something else? Let’s discuss that now.
One of the most common ways to diagnose stress-induced gastritis is through an endoscopy (2).
An endoscopy is a procedure where a camera on a thin tube is inserted via the mouth into the stomach in order to view the esophagus and stomach walls. Through the endoscopy, your doctor can determine if there is inflammation of the stomach lining. Your doctor will also take samples of the inflamed stomach lining and biopsy it for further information.
In addition, stool testing and/or breath testing can reveal if you have an overgrowth of a bacteria called H. Pylori, a major risk factor for gastritis.
What increases the risk of gastritis?
There are several causes of gastritis, including being critically ill. For this post, we’ll focus on the causes of gastritis that are in our wheelhouse to help with, starting with s-t-r-e-s-s.
We have a LOT of demands on our plate every day; from the demands of work and family to the never-ending to-do list of chores, it can make you feel overwhelmed and overtasked.
There is a big connection between your levels of stress and your risk of gastritis (3)! When you’ve experienced something really scary, such as a car accident, or your daily life leaves you feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious, your body goes into a state of “fight or flight”.
Your nervous system doesn’t recognize the difference between a car accident and day-to-day stress. While the physical changes that happen in your body make you better able to get away from physical danger, they actually make digestion take a back seat.
When you take the driver’s seat and take deliberate action, you can lower your stress levels. Instead of HIIT classes or an intense ride on your PelotonⓇ, try deep breathing, meditation, gentle walks, and slow stretches. These activities help your whole body to be calm. As cortisol levels drop, your body is better able to refocus on the more gentle work of digestion!
Learn even more about stress in this post: Is Stress Causing Your Digestive Symptoms?
About 1 in 10 cases of gastritis are because of a bacteria called H. Pylori. You might think of H. Pylori is related to stomach ulcers (4). H. Pylori is the most common cause of stomach ulcers, but it is a common culprit in developing gastritis as well.
It is important to note that many of us have H. Pylori in our stomachs without issue. It’s considered to be a commensal bacteria meaning it’s a part of our collection of good gut bugs. But it can overgrow and cause an infection, which may need treatment.
H.pylori can be diagnosed through a biopsy of the stomach as part of the endoscopic procedure, through a stool test or through a breath test. Biopsies can frequently miss H. pylori because it’s hard to sample the entire stomach lining. We have had numerous clients with positive H. pylori stool tests but negative on biopsies. It’s best to take more than one test to rule it in or rule it out.
An H. pylori infection can also cause low stomach acid. What’s the problem with this? Your stomach acid is crucial to be able to properly digest your food. Not only that, the acid bath helps to kill potentially dangerous microorganisms, protecting you from food poisoning and other infections (5).
If you don’t have enough acid in your stomach, this can also increase the risk that you’ll develop gastritis. Your stomach acid levels might be too low because of acid-reducing medications, because of an H. Pylori infection, or because your stomach isn’t making enough, which can happen because of gastritis – ACK! It is a vicious cycle.
And to make matters worse, an H. pylori infection, because it lowers stomach acid, can be a risk factor for SIBO. Some of our clients have both issues. The good news is that when you address H. pylori, SIBO often resolves or is easier to treat.
Some foods and drinks can be more irritating to your stomach than others. If you suspect that you might be suffering from gastritis, we’d recommend cutting back on (or fully eliminating) the following:
- Alcohol – beer, wine, cocktails and even over-the-counter medications can contain alcohol
- Caffeine – coffee, tea, energy drinks
- Spicy food – hot sauce, curries, salsa and even too much ginger
- Highly processed foods – artificial ingredients and colors
- Sodium-rich foods – many highly processed foods, fast food and lunch meat
Overall, we tend to see gastritis as a constellation of GI conditions and symptoms; one issue causes more issues downstream.
Once you know what your root causes are, how are you going to start feeling better? Luckily there are several options that you can implement to find lasting relief.
So now that we’ve talked through several different root causes for stress-induced gastritis, it makes it clear why we need to understand why this started before we can talk about treatment.
The best treatment strategy is comprehensive and addresses why your stomach is inflamed, to begin with.
Let’s start with that insidious stress that we could all probably benefit from a lower level of.
As we talked about earlier, stress has real physical consequences on our bodies. The good news is that stress reduction techniques really work to lower your stress levels. Here are a few ideas to get started.
Eat in “rest and digest mode.” Do you usually eat your meals at your desk, in your car, or while doing 10 other things? We recommend that you try, even for a few minutes, to just focus on your meal. Take several slow deep breaths before you start, enjoy your meal with fewer distractions, and take a few more slow deep breaths as a stress-reducing dessert at the end. Your body will feel calmer, and be able to better digest your food.
Meditate. Even for as little as five minutes – the benefits are enormous (6).
Spend time outside
We tend to spend most of our time inside, looking at screens. But the benefits of getting outside in nature, even for a few minutes, are enormous. Not only can some time with mother nature boost your mood, it can actually help your body to recover from the physical effects of stress (7).
For more information about science-backed stress-reduction techniques, check out this post:
Sometimes your stomach just needs a break!
Removing the foods and drinks that are irritating your digestive system offers you a quick path to symptom relief. The tricky part is that not everyone has the same triggers; this is where we can help you to navigate what to remove first so that you’re not feeling you have nothing left that you’re allowed to eat.
Did you know that medications can cause unwanted side effects? Even the benefit of over-the-counter medications has to be weighed against the possible side effects.
In the case of gastritis, pain-relieving medications are the first medications we ask clients about; overuse of aspirin and ibuprofen can increase your risk of gastritis (which is tricky, since you’re taking those medications because you’re in pain!) (8).
There are actually a lot of different kinds of probiotics. Different strains have different potential benefits. One type of probiotic called S. boulardii may have a therapeutic benefit specific to gastritis.
This specific strain of probiotics can help to eradicate an H. Pylori infection . (Bonus: this probiotics can help to treat diarrhea if you have that as a side effect from taking an antibiotic (9)).
Because H. Pylori is such a prevalent cause of gastritis, even when stress is also playing a part, it may be helpful to think about including foods that inhibit the growth of H. Pylori.
- Cruciferous veggies – like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, radishes, etc.
- Berries – eat a colorful variety of berries, including blueberries and strawberries
- Turmeric – add curry to your recipes or consider a supplement
That’s a wrap!
It is important to keep in mind that stress-induced gastritis isn’t a specific diagnosis, but it is incredibly common.
In order to get on a path to feeling better and truly understanding your condition, it’s important to take an honest look at your lifestyle habits: improving your nutrition, lowering stress levels, and minimizing your medications are going to make the most difference in relieving these symptoms.
If making changes like decreasing your intake of spicy or fried foods, cutting down on caffeine or alcohol, regular implementation of stress management techniques, and feeling more relaxed is something you are ready to explore – we at Belly Bliss Nutrition are ready to help.
We will be here for you every step of the way from meeting with us virtually, devising strategies for dietary adjustments, and offering a whole-body approach to dealing with day-to-day stressors.
Schedule your free 15-minute strategy call to learn more.
Sara Kahn, MS, CNS, CDN is a board-certified nutritionist specializing in digestive health conditions like SIBO, IBS, acid reflux and more. She’s the founder of Belly Bliss Nutrition and the Solving SIBO Program.