Stress and Heartburn: 5 Ways to Find Relief

Stress itself does not cause heartburn. There is data that suggests you produce more acid when you're under stress, but reflux is not so much a problem with stomach acid, it's a problem with acid in the wrong place—the esophagus instead of in the stomach.

"Any symptom—a sore knee, headache, heartburn—is going to be more pronounced when you're under stress," says David A. Peura, M.D., Professor of Medicine, University of Virginia Health Sciences Center, Charlottesville. "It's all going to be brought to a different level of awareness."

And when people are under a lot of stress, they tend to alter their lifestyle-and not for the better. For instance, they may:

  • Drink more alcohol
  • Overeat; eat at odd times; or eat unhealthy foods
  • Smoke more cigarettes

"All of those things may help get you through a stressful period, but they can have a bad effect on reflux," explains Peura.

When you're stressed, your brain sends out distress signals to your gut—this affects your whole metabolic process, Steven Lamm, M.D., author of No Guts, No Glory (Basic Health Publications). Food stays in your stomach longer, and digestive processes are diminished. In addition to triggering the resulting heartburn, stress can manifest itself in the stomach by bloating and gassiness.

What's Causing Your Stress?

First, you need to be aware that you have a problem and then attack it. Ask yourself:

  • Why today? What's different now than six months ago? Six days ago?
  • Are you eating enough healthy food?
  • Are you exercising enough?
  • Are you happy at work?
  • Is there a problem with a relationship?
  • Are the kids doing okay?
  • Are you gaining weight?
  • Are you having trouble sleeping?
  • Has your mood changed?

These questions may provide clues to help you reveal the source of your stress. "Stress is part of our lives, but when it comes to chronic stress, it has profound effects on you physiologically and you need to do something," says Lamm.

Besides taking your heartburn medication as directed by your doctor, there are ways to reduce stress so the symptoms don't flare up to begin with:

1. Music

Peura says classical music works for him. The trick to making music work for you?  Listen to something you like. Whether it's classic rock, country, or classical, listen to tunes that will melt away tension.

2. Movement

Finding time for a full workout is tough, but luckily just getting up and walking around for a few minutes does wonders for stress-relief. "Oftentimes, you can't get up and walk away from a stressful situation, but you can leave it for a short period of time. If you're having a problem at work, take an early lunch break and just get out, even for a short period of time," says Peura.

3. Meditation

Just sit still, and take some deep breaths. "When you're taking shallow breaths—like when you're stressed—you're not really getting as much oxygen to your system as you probably should," says Peura. "When you take slow, relaxing breaths, you really allow all the tissues of your body and brain to be adequately oxygenated."

4. Journaling

Peura recommends taking a half-hour each day to just sit down and write. "It doesn't have to be coherent. Just write about something," he says. "Some people write poems, some people just write about their situation. You don't even have to read what you write. It's just the act of putting pen to paper."

5. Changing Your Diet

You can actually treat stress by improving the nutrient value of your food, says Lamm. "If you start eating well, you'll absorb more nutrients, and your body will actually feel better equipped to fight stress."




David A. Peura, M.D., Professor of Medicine, University of Virginia Health Sciences Center, Charlottesville.

Steven Lamm, M.D., "house doctor" on ABC's The View and author of No Guts, No Glory (Basic Health Publications, 2012)