Symptoms of GERD Linked to Stress: Here’s What You Can Do

Stress is a big factor in GERD, but it can be hard to tell if GERD is the cause of your stress or vice versa. In this blog post, we will discuss how GERD and stress are linked, and what you can do to improve your symptoms from each.

First, let’s talk about GERD.

What is GERD?

GERD is a condition in which the stomach contents back up into the esophagus – ouch!

GERD has many symptoms, including heartburn and regurgitation of stomach acid or food into your mouth, and feelings of stress and anxiety.

This post will focus on GERD’s connection with stress – how GERD can cause high levels of stress and vice versa!

Symptoms of GERD

Wondering what GERD feels like? While things can vary from person to person, symptoms of GERD might include (1):

  • Heartburn or chest pain
  • GERD might make you cough a lot, especially at night
  • GERD might cause an upset stomach and nausea
  • A feeling of having a lump in your throat

FYI – GERD is not exactly the same thing as acid reflux or heartburn (2). Acid reflux is the symptom mentioned above, happening once in a while. Heartburn is a symptom of GERD or acid reflux. GERD is acid reflux happening chronically.

GERD treatment

What is the best treatment for GERD? If you’re like most people, you’d probably guess a handful of Tums…and if your symptoms continued, a chat with your doctor to get a prescription for an acid-reducing medication.

The trouble with those two answers is that while they may help you to feel better in the short term, they’re both just treating the symptoms of GERD. Those two treatments are not addressing the root cause(s) of why you got GERD to begin with.

And even worse? There are actually risks of using acid-reducing treatments long term, including the risk of nutrient deficiency and even an increased risk of dementia (3). Your stomach acid plays an important role in digestion, we just need to work to keep the stomach acid where it is supposed to be: in your stomach.

Stress is one of many risk factors for GERD (4). Have you ever paused and wondered what is actually going on in your body when you’re feeling stressed? Turns out, there is a lot going on! Let’s talk about that next.

What is stress?

Stress is an incredibly common condition that adversely affects people’s health. Stress isn’t seen as a health hazard by many of us, including our medical professionals, but stress can have far-reaching consequences, including your GERD (5).

How can stress affect our health?

Have you ever felt that pit in your stomach when you’re stressed? Or experienced butterfly feelings when you are nervous? The gut-brain connection is strong!

Did you know that your gut and brain are chit-chatting all day long? There are many routes of communication. Just like you can email, call or text your friends, there are different ways that the two organs are talking. One of the main communication pathways is through a nerve called the vagus nerve. We’ll talk more about the vagus nerve in a bit.

In the meantime, stress affects digestion in many ways. Here are four examples:

Poor sleep

When we’re stressed, we tend to have a harder time getting a restful night’s sleep. And if we don’t sleep well, we miss the opportunity that our gut needs to ‘rest and digest.” Sleep isn’t just for beauty, it is for optimizing digestion!

Cortisol spikes

Cortisol is the stress hormone your body releases when you’re stressed. What is cortisol’s job? To help your body get away from danger. Cortisol floods your muscles with sugar so that they’re fueled and ready to run. This is helpful if you need to dash away from a tiger – less helpful if you’re worried about a work deadline and not in physical danger.

Cortisol is a really important hormone to help keep our bodies safe, but it is not meant to be active often; long-term, cortisol increases inflammation. The more your gut is inflamed because of cortisol or any other cause, the greater your risk of GERD symptoms

Vagus nerve stimulation

When we are feeling stressed, our fight or flight mode kicks in. And remember how we talked about how the gut and the brain are chatting all day long? The vagus nerve is sending messages from the brain to the gut that say we are STRESSED RIGHT NOW.

So what happens? During stress, the sympathetic nervous system prevents normal digestion from happening. If your body is preparing to get away from a tiger, digesting your sandwich from lunch is definitely not the priority.

As soon as you’re able to calm that fight or flight mode, your digestion can return to normal. This helps to reduce stress symptoms and GERD symptoms. We’ll cover a few easy ways to reduce stress in a bit – keep reading


You’ve probably heard of serotonin – the happy hormone – but did you know that most of our serotonin is made in our gut (6)?

So what happens if your digestion is off, your gut is inflamed or you’re constantly in fight or flight mode? You’re not going to be making enough serotonin to do its important work to regulate mood and digestion.

Stress management techniques

While a bubble bath is thrown around as a self-care technique, most of us need a few more tools than that to work through stress.

We will always have some stress – that is a function of living in modern society – but with purposeful use of stress-reducing tools and pursuing a life that feels good, you can work to manage your stress. And guess what? Less stress means fewer GERD symptoms, too (7)!

Different people enjoy different ways to reduce stress. Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Journaling
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Movements that feel good, such as walking and dancing
  • Deep breathing exercises (especially before or after meals)
  • Getting good quality sleep
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Spend time outside in the sun

No matter what, doing activities each day that help you to feel grounded and centered helps you to function better. The less you’re in fight or flight mode, the better your digestive system will be working, and the less you’ll have GERD symptoms.

Key takeaways: GERD and Stress

GERD and stress are two peas in a pod; if you’re dealing with one of the two, it is quite possible the other is not far behind.

The good news is that treatment of GERD and stress can also go hand in hand. Reducing stress helps your digestion to work far better and you’ll feel far better, too.

Nutrition and lifestyle are powerful tools in the toolbelt, and most doctors are not talking about it. If you’re ready to ditch the Tums and get to work addressing the root cause(s) of your GERD and stress symptoms, please reach out!