Stress can be a heartburn trigger. When too many things pile up at work, school, or home, or you experience a big life change, heartburn symptoms may worsen.
Stress may also be connected to the conditions that cause heartburn: acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Acid reflux occurs when stomach contents flow backwards into the esophagus (the muscular tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach), and GERD is the name for a condition in which acid reflux occurs frequently. Acid reflux and GERD can both cause heartburn and may both be influenced by stress levels5.
If you are increasingly noticing a burning sensation in your chest or throat, it could be a sign that you need to take some time to deal with stress. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help prevent and relieve stress and heartburn.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN STRESS AND HEARTBURN
The link between stress and heartburn was first uncovered nearly 20 years ago. Researchers found that when people experienced a major life event, they were more likely to report heartburn symptoms for several months afterwards1.
More recent scientific studies have continued to explore the link between stress and heartburn. They have found that people with acid reflux are almost twice as likely to say they deal with a lot of stress2.
Researchers have come up with a few possible explanations for the connection. Stress may3-6:
- Make people more aware of their heartburn pain.
- Slow down digestion, causing food to sit in the stomach longer and leading to a higher chance that stomach juices flow into the esophagus.
- Make people more likely to engage in behaviors that may trigger heartburn, such as eating fattier foods or smoking cigarettes.
It doesn’t help that there seems to be more reasons to feel stressed these days. One study found that more people have been experiencing symptoms, including heartburn, since the COVID-19 pandemic7.
Everyone feels stressed from time to time — it’s a normal part of life. Learning how to better manage life’s stressors can help you achieve better health.
HOW TO MANAGE HEARTBURN AND STRESS
Several activities and habits can help you manage heartburn and acid reflux from stress. Try adjusting your daily routine to include things like8,9:
- Meditation: Mindfulness practices, breathing exercises, and guided relaxation activities are proven stress relievers. Many meditation-related books, websites, videos, and smartphone apps are available.
- Getting more physical activity: Moving around more every day is good for your mind. This doesn’t have to be an intense gym workout, either — a walk around your neighborhood or a cleaning session can be good exercise! Additionally, activities like yoga and tai chi have known stress-busting abilities.
- Improving your diet: When you’re in stress mode, it’s extra tempting to reach for processed food or hit up the drive-through. However, eating more nutritious foods can help you feel better in the long run.
- Sleeping better: Go to bed a little earlier, get some earplugs or blackout curtains, and avoid screens before bed.
- Cutting alcohol and cigarettes: These substances may help you cope in the moment but can often add to stress in the long-term. Try reducing how much you drink or smoke.
- Being more social: Keeping in touch with loved ones can improve mental health. Invite family over for a game night, call up a friend, or join a local or online community related to one of your interests.
- Stepping away from the news or social media: Occasionally taking breaks from stressful TV or websites can help you avoid additional stress.
- Streamlining your schedule: If you have too much on your plate, delegating or saying no to new responsibilities may help lessen your mental burden.
If you can’t seem to manage your stress, or you are feeling very overwhelmed, it may be time to talk to a healthcare professional. Your doctor or a counselor can introduce you to ways to manage stress that may be a better fit for your personal needs.
For times when lifestyle modifications don't seem to help with your heartburn symptoms, an over-the-counter medication like PEPCID® may help. PEPCID® helps relieve your heartburn symptoms, so at least you don’t have to be stressed about that. Try Maximum Strength PEPCID AC® to help prevent heartburn before it starts or ease symptoms in minutes. Take this over-the-counter heartburn reliever 10 to 60 minutes before eating to help prevent your heartburn or once you first notice that burning feeling begin to help relieve your symptoms.
1 Naliboff BD, Mayer M, Fass R, et al. The effect of life stress on symptoms of heartburn. Psychosom Med. 2004;66(3):426-434.
2 Song EM, Jung HK, Jung JM. The association between reflux esophagitis and psychosocial stress. Dig Dis Sci. 2013;58(2):471-477.
3 Johnston BT. Stress and heartburn. J Psychosom Res. 2005;59(6):425-426.
4 Wong MW, Liu TT, Yi CH, et al. Oesophageal hypervigilance and visceral anxiety relate to reflux symptom severity and psychological distress but not to acid reflux parameters. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2021;54(7):923-930.
5 Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011;62(6):591-599.
6 Ng DM, Jeffery RW. Relationships between perceived stress and health behaviors in a sample of working adults. Health Psychol. 2003;22(6):638-642.
7 Nakov R, Dimitrova-Yurukova D, Snegarova V, Nakov V, Fox M, Heinrich H. Increased prevalence of gastrointestinal symptoms and disorders of gut-brain interaction during the COVID-19 pandemic: An internet-based survey. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2021;e14197.
8 5 Things You Should Know About Stress. National Institute of Mental Health. 2019. Accessed December 15, 2021.
9 Coping With Stress. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reviewed July 22, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021.