Here's Exactly How — and Why — Stress Is Making You Bloated (and How to Fix It)

POPSUGAR Photography | Paul Kabata
POPSUGAR Photography | Paul Kabata

For the majority of last year, I was undergoing tests on my abdomen and digestive tract to figure out why I was constantly bloated — every single day. After testing my blood and my breath, eradicating all types of bloat-inducing foods from my diet (looking at you, FODMAPs and dairy), getting multiple ultrasounds, and visiting at least six doctors, I heard a voice of reason from Dr. Daniel Conlin, gastroenterologist: "It's probably stress."

Hearing from an MD that something emotional could be triggering such an intense physiological reaction was a first for me. I anticipated Dr. Conlin would point to something in my diet or discover a missing enzyme that my body inherently wasn't making or (as my mind went to the worst place) even find something in my GI tract that wasn't supposed to be there. Though methodical in his approach to eliminate all other options, he was certain it was my stress levels. "I see this in many young women your age," he told me. "Typically high-achieving, A-type college grads who work here [in San Francisco] in some kind of fast-paced tech or startup company."

"When one is under chronic stress, cortisol and other hormones are dominant. The result of this is bloating and gastrointestinal distress."

Does that sound familiar to you? There's science behind it, too. Stress throws off your gut — or microbiome, more specifically — which can set off a domino effect in the rest of your body, and bloating is one indicator of that.

"The gut is referred to as the second brain," said Dr. Gabrielle Lyon, doctor of osteopathic medicine at Four Moons Spa in San Diego, CA, and The Ash Center For Comprehensive Medicine in Manhattan, NY. "Under times of acute or chronic stress, it can often manifest in the belly first."

She explained to POPSUGAR that "when one is under chronic stress, cortisol and other hormones are dominant." Here's how that domino effect begins to work: "Under this situation [of intense or chronic stress], the body does not see digestion as a priority; the sympathetic system redirects blood flow away from the intestines to what the body perceives as more important needs."

So the blood goes away and madness ensues. "This redirection of blood can lead to diminished enzyme and stomach secretions, resulting in slow digestion, food breakdown, and assimilation. The result of this is bloating and gastrointestinal distress." Makes sense . . . and sounds awful.

In addition to the slowed digestion, there can also be an influx of "bad" bacteria, as was explained to me by Amie Valpone, nutritionist and founder of "When our microbiome is out of balance from stress, we get an imbalance of nonbeneficial bacteria such as yeasts, parasites, and bad bacteria that take over and make us feel bloated and tired and bring along a host of unwanted symptoms that range from person to person."

Dr. Lyon gave a two-pronged approach to treating stress-induced bloating: stress management and digestive support (which is exactly what I have had to implement for myself over the past year). "For stress-management techniques, deep belly breathing can help the activate the sympathetic nervous system, also known as rest and digest," she said. And "for nutritional support, chewing food slowly and not drinking during meals will help the body process food in a more stressed state."

You can take it a step further with "a high-quality digestive enzyme," she said. It was also recommended to me by Dr. Conlin to try probiotics (I've been on the Align brand per his recommendation for over a year now — I get it at Costco!) in addition to acupuncture. Through the digestive aid from the probiotics and stress-management through acupuncture, I was able to get my body back to a healthy and comfortable place.

The result of de-stressing: my stomach has returned to its normal state! (That's me on the right.)

Take a second look at your diet, too. Dr. Lyon suggests you "eliminate processed foods and instead focus on lean protein and cooked vegetables." She also recommended spreading small meals out throughout the day and adding both ginger and fermented foods to your diet. Her last bit of advice is to try her favorite morning shakes that are designed for helping your digestive tract: "OptiCleanse and glutAloeMine." But above all, focus on the root of your bloating — the stress! Find ways to unwind and seek balance to restore your body's health and wellness.