Why Your Stomach Is So Sensitive & 9 Ways To Feel Better

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woman holding her stomach in pain

The "psyche-soma connection." We hear about it a lot when talking about people's gastrointestinal (AKA tummy) issues.

I was just listening to a physician speak about the effects of trauma on the body and I couldn't help but think, "How has it taken this long to start discussing the significant correlation between the body and the mind?"

As a technologically-advanced society, we are wreaking havoc on our bodies. "The cell phone slouch" is affecting people's spines as they lean over their phones on top of spending hours slouching in a chair or over their phones.

Similarly, having stomach and bowel problems may be warning signs that your gut is reacting to your stress and emotional levels.

RELATED: Your Body Tells You The Truth — How To Listen And Heal

I have seen this first-hand in my own life.

I realized at the age of 20 that I was lactose intolerant and had a very difficult time digesting milk products, which subsequently increased my morning bathroom routine. Interestingly enough, I was also a full-time college student living away from home, getting very little sleep, and also working part-time.

Coincidence? I think not. As an adult, later on, my lactose intolerance improved as I learned how to take care of my mental and physical well-being.

If you relate to having "tummy troubles" like me and so many others, it's important to know that there are things you can do to help manage your sensitive stomach! (Note: Seek professional medical advice as the first line of intervention. Physical issues supersede psychological issues.)

What does it mean to have a sensitive stomach?

If you have a sensitive stomach, it means you have a tummy that can easily be upset. It's not an official medical term but it can relay the correct information to a doctor when described with its regular symptoms.

People with sensitive stomachs have a certain proclivity for stomach aches, gas, bloating, and even vomiting.

A sensitive stomach can be caused by a multitude of reasons from physical to mental and emotional. You could develop a sensitive stomach thanks to stress, anxiety, or a medical condition like IBS.

Symptoms include:

  • intestinal gas
  • bloating
  • indigestion
  • heartburn
  • acid reflux
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • occasional abdominal pain
  • constipation
  • diarrhea

What causes a sensitive stomach?

1. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome is one of the most common causes of a sensitive stomach.

IBS deals with your intestines along with your stomach. The condition is the inflammation of the intestines, which lowers the mobility of its contents, and therefore prevents your stomach and intestines from functioning optimally.

The symptoms are very similar to sensitive stomach issues, except there are those who suffer more from chronic constipation and others who deal with ongoing diarrhea.

2. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

Inflammatory bowel disease is the ongoing inflammation of all or part of the digestive tract. Like Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s disease, IBD can cause severe symptoms within the body.

IBD is often treated with regular prescription anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive drugs.

3. Food intolerance

Food intolerance is when a person can't effectively digest certain foods. You've heard of being lactose intolerant, but food intolerance means a person lacks the enzyme lactase to properly digest lactose, which is found in dairy products.

Food intolerance doesn't just apply to dairy; it can include other types of foods like gluten, salicylates, fructose, and even caffeine.

4. Stress and anxiety

Many people often bypass how mental and emotional issues contribute to physical health issues like a sensitive stomach.

When a person is stressed, their hormones and neurotransmitters are released, which impacts the mobility within their gut. It also affects the way our intestines and stomach squeeze to expel waste from the body.

Additionally, stress can wreak havoc on the balance of bacteria needed within our stomachs. Anxiety causes us to hold tension within our gut and digestive tract which holds up its normal processes.

5. Alcohol and caffeine

Alcohol and caffeine aren't great to consume in droves, as this can be another cause of a sensitive stomach.

Caffeine is a stimulant that can irritate the stomach and cause sensitivity in your intestines. Alcohol inflames the stomach lining, causing it to become inflamed and swollen.

6. Lack of exercise

Exercise and moving around keep blood pumping throughout your body. This allows your stomach and intestines to function properly, squeezing regularly to move waste out of the body.

However, a lack of exercise means a stagnation of your digestive tract, which isn't processing how it should. This leads to other issues like constipation, which can make your sensitive stomach much worse.

Be sure to move around every day to keep your body on track.

7. Other conditions

Along with the common conditions listed above, there are other things that can cause a sensitive stomach: gastroparesis, peptic ulcer disease, and dyspepsia.

Gastroparesis is when the stomach takes a long time to empty itself. Peptic ulcer disease is when ulcers are found in the stomach and small intestine. Finally, there is dyspepsia, which is a fancy name for indigestion.

It's best to see a doctor should you suspect any of these.

RELATED: 10 Warning Signs That Something’s Up With Your Health

How To Reduce Stomach Sensitivity

Here are 9 ways to reduce stomach sensitivity and discomfort, and address the underlying issues (after you visit your primary care physician to rule out any serious physiological issues).

1. Get enough rest.

If you aren't sleeping enough (the CDC recommends adults get seven hours or more per night), this can really wreak havoc all over the place — from your mood to your alertness levels. Your body surely will compensate you poorly for not allowing yourself to adequately rest.

Yes, even your sensitive stomach can pay the price for not getting enough rest, so schedule a good night's sleep and see if your tummy feels better.

2. Check your eating habits.

Are you eating the proper foods? Are you eating too fast or more than you need?

Again, consult your physician on what they recommend you eat. If you are so busy that you are forgetting to provide your body nutrition, your body will go into "survival" mode and shut down, which also takes a toll on your bodily systems.

Mention the medications you take to your physician, as some side effects may also include constipation, which may not assist your gut health. Slow down when eating if you find that you scarf down your food, and maybe reduce the portion size.

Do your best to eliminate trigger foods. These foods not only irritate the stomach, but also "trigger" a phenomenon of craving more once the person eats them.

Trigger foods include:

  • tomato sauce and citrus fruits
  • dairy
  • fried foods
  • high-fat foods
  • processed foods
  • gluten (wheat, rye, or barley)
  • artificial sweeteners
  • caffeine
  • alcohol

3. Move around.

If you work at a desk and spend a long time sitting, this can deliver a heavy blow to your digestion, among other systems.

One positive aspect of our technologically-inclined society is that there are devices such as the Apple Watch and Fitbit that allow hourly reminders to move around if one becomes too sedentary. Others enjoy taking a brisk walk on their lunch break.

Many have reported success with their digestive system simply by taking a yoga class.

4. Plan a calming activity and incorporate mindfulness.

Even if you can't afford to get away from it all, setting aside 5-10 minutes a day to envision a relaxing place in your mind can be all it takes to recenter and refocus your thoughts.

This, in turn (you guessed it), may have a calming effect on your body's systems.

5. Assess the toxicity levels in your life.

Are you surrounding yourself with unbearable work deadlines and unhealthy relationships? Take an inventory of the percentage of your day that is stressful versus relaxing.

How can you create more balance in your day? Is that too overwhelming of a task, or do you not know where or how to start? Talking it out with a professional to prioritize and get your life back on a healthier relationship track is one step that can help.

6. Drink more water.

Water is your best friend if you have stomach issues! You could be chronically dehydrated without even knowing it. So, it's best to keep a water bottle near you and to sip it throughout your day.

Not drinking enough water can also lead to constipation.

7. Lower your caffeine and alcohol intake.

Caffeine is a constant stomach irritant, so if you are a heavy coffee drinker this may be your problem. Try to reduce your intake to one cup a day or even try adjusting the time you drink your caffeine. If you drink most of it in the morning, try drinking it in the afternoon or at lunchtime.

With alcohol, it will always irritate your stomach — why else do people say to always drink on a full stomach? Not only will alcohol irritate your stomach, but it can also swell and inflame your stomach lining. This can lead to worse medical conditions like stomach ulcers.

8. Reduce stress.

Stress could most definitely be the culprit behind your sensitive stomach.

Do your best to avoid stressors and cut down on the amount of stress in your life. Perhaps add a stress-relieving practice like yoga or meditation into your routine to help you cope.

9. Reschedule vitamins.

Sometimes, taking vitamins and supplements can make your stomach queasy.

Try taking them at a different time of day or with food in your stomach. You can also check the bottle, as most vitamins and supplements have a guide on the label that tells you when is the best time to take them.

Ultimately, your body is composed of biological systems and signals that provide the natural checks and balances for how you are currently conducting your life.

In a society that values productivity over self-care, these protective factors such as your digestive health can be overlooked by others, but it doesn't have to be overlooked by you.

Without health (mind and body), it is difficult to achieve the very goals you are setting out to accomplish. Use your mind to not only "check items off your to-do list," but also to turn inwards and listen to your body — it has a story to tell.

RELATED: The Scary Truth About What Happens To Your Body When You're Stressed

Maxine Langdon Starr, Ph.D., LMFT is a marriage and family therapist specializing in adolescents and young adults, partner/owner of Sunflower Therapies, professor of psychology at Brandman University, and motivational speaker on self-esteem.