What Is A Nervous Stomach?

Most of us have experienced a nervous stomach at one time or another. It may have been a slight case of “butterflies”, a certain queasiness, or even a case severe indigestion, accompanied by stomach pain. Some unfortunate individuals seem to suffer stomach problems such as these at the drop of a hat. The slightest stressful incident or anxious moment send them to the medicine cabinet, to take whatever might be in there that can relieve their nervous or upset stomach.

The medical term for the condition is dyspepsia, and finding the cause of a case of chronic dyspepsia can sometimes be quite difficult, especially when what we are thinking or worrying about is what is triggering bouts of dyspepsia. When the cause of the stomach distress is not obvious, the medical term functional dyspepsia applies, “functional” in this case meaning “We have no idea”.

Is It Really The Nerves?

If it isn't in the stomach where whatever problem we're having seems to settle, it's in the nerves. We often blame things on our nerves, when the truth is, we really don't know what we're talking about. We only know how we feel. Having a case of the nerves, or suffering from a nervous stomach, are old-fashioned terms, having little to do with the nerves but are nevertheless terms still in common usage.

The Connection Between The Brain And The Stomach

Obviously, if we are undergoing lots of stress, and suddenly begin to feel a little sick to our stomach, there would seem to be a connection somewhere between what is bothering us mentally and what is affecting us physically. The nervous system that affects digestion operates more or less independently of the nervous system that works with our brain. The brain and the central nervous system don't tell us how to go about digesting our food, yet if something is interfering with the digestive process, the brain soon learns about it. Conversely, what we are thinking about, or worrying about, can have an effect on the digestive system. As it turns out, even though our digestive system has an independent nervous system, called the enteric nervous system, it still has ties to our central nervous system, thereby providing a pathway from the stomach to the brain. It is this connection that plays a major role when we suffer from chronic stomach or digestive problems that are triggered by the thoughts going on in our brain.

We know that emotions such as stress, fear, and anxiety can cause physical responses within the body. It's not just a matter however of the brain instructing the stomach to become upset when we worry about something. There's more to it than that. What happens is, the brain and the central nervous system might tell the heart to speed up, or might tell the immune system to increase the flow of adrenaline, or might cause our blood pressure to rise. A combination of such things can upset the digestive process, the result being a condition we then experience as an upset stomach. Fear can have the strongest influence of all, especially if we're faced with what we perceive to be a life-or-death situation. Here, our body goes into a fight-or-flee mode, and in doing so, shuts down functions which are at the moment non-essential. One of these non-essential functions is the process of digestion, which may be brought of a complete stop. Something less than a life-or-death situation, such as having an argument, won't usually stop the digestive process, but can slow it down, which in turn can cause an upset stomach.

Details, Please

Aside from the name “nervous stomach” being a misnomer, it is also quite vague. If you tell your doctor that's what your problem is, he may nod knowingly, but will immediately ask you what symptoms you're experiencing, since complaining of a “nervous stomach” doesn't really tell him much of anything, or at least nothing he can base a diagnosis on. If that's all the information you're willing to give, he'll probably tell you to take some bicarbonate of soda, and only come back if that doesn't seem to help.

A Two-Way Street

The relationship between the brain, the central nervous system, the enteric nervous system, and the digestive tract works in both directions. That is to say, our emotions can affect digestion, and therefore how our stomach feels. How our stomach feels can in turn affect our thoughts. In other words, a vicious cycle can develop. Our worries trigger stomach problems, and our stomach problems, if they become chronic, begin to negatively affect our thoughts. If we only experience an occasional bout of butterflies in our stomach it's seldom a big deal, but if the vicious cycle takes hold, getting medical and perhaps even psychiatric treatment, or undergoing psychotherapy, is probably needed if one wishes to return to a quality lifestyle, one that is relatively free of stomach problems. If medication alone won't resolve the situation, one of several types of therapy will usually be recommended, including relaxation therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, in which coping skills are learned, and hypnosis.

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