Why Is My Stomach Upset? 8 Things Your Body Could Be Telling You

Shutterstock

Pretty much everyone knows what it feels like: that churning in your belly, that gnawing sense that something in your body is off because your stomach won’t stop roiling. But often, people don’t actually know what’s causing your upset stomach. Fortunately — for all its frustrating vagueness — your body is actually pretty good at communicating with your brain. Sometimes it’s just a matter of listening to what it’s telling us. So, what is your upset stomach trying to tell you?

Everyone’s body is different, and everyone’s stomachaches are different. But, there are some things to feel for when you’re trying to listen to what your body is telling you when your stomach hurts. Upset stomachs are so common for many people that they forget to stop and think about what they’ve been doing — or what they’re about to do — that might have caused their stomachs to say whoa, hold up and pay attention to me.

Of course, if the pain is persistent and interferes with your daily activities, seeking a doctor’s advice should be your first step. But for your average bellyache, there are some ways to scan your body to try and figure out what the feeling might mean.

1. You’re Anxious Or Stressed

Olena Yakobchuk_Shutterstock

According to the Anxiety And Depression Association of America, there is a very strong connection between your brain and your gut. Other than the brain itself, the digestive tract contains the largest amount of nerves, many of which are directly connected to your brain — hence butterflies in your stomach before you give a speech in public. Did you just go through something stressful? Are you anticipating doing something that scares you? Scanning your emotional state can help you identify when your upset stomach is anxiety-related.

According to Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant Stephanie Papadakis, "Stress not only heightens your emotions but your physical body functions as well. Stress can send your digestive system into overdrive," she tells Bustle, "which can cause a stomach ache or nausea. Anxiety can also cause physical symptoms to manifest into feelings of nausea or butterflies in your stomach." Papadakis goes on to explain that being a chronic "fight or flight" state from chronic emotional stress is often overlooked as a cause of upset stomachs. Taking breaks, saying no, and being gentle with yourself as you ride through the anxiety can all be helpful at relieving these kinds of stomachaches.

2. You Ate Very Quickly

Eating quickly can prevent your stomach from signaling your brain that you’re full. According to Harvard Health Publishing at Harvard Medical School, your stomach has stretch receptors that tell your brain when your stomach starts filling with water or food. Through both hormone signals and communication directly from the gut to the brain through the vagus nerve, your stomach is able to tell your brain when it’s getting full.

But, eating quickly doesn’t give the stomach enough time for your hormone exchange to tell your brain that you’re ready to stop eating. This can lead to indigestion, which Papadakis says "is most commonly caused by the lower esophageal sphincter’s inability to close. If it’s not functioning properly, it cannot prevent stomach acids from refluxing back into the esophagus." This sensation from being extremely full after eating quickly can definitely cause your belly to be upset with you. It might be trying to tell you to be mindful about eating more slowly next time! But if your stomach is giving you the all-clear, of course, eat as quickly as you please: every body needs and likes to eat in different ways, and that's more than alright.

3. You Might Have Food Intolerances

_Nomad_Soul_Shutterstock

Let’s get this settled first: food intolerances aren’t food allergies. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, allergies trigger the immune system, while intolerances cause digestive pain after eating food your body isn’t able to effectively break down. Your body might lack the enzymes needed to process certain foods, like with lactose intolerance. Or there might be chemicals in certain foods or drinks causing intolerance, like in the caffeine and histamines in coffee that doesn’t sit right with some people. If you notice that your stomach is getting angry with you after eating or drinking certain things, you might want to try reducing or eliminating the food for a while to see if your body feels better.

4. You're Hungover

People know that hangovers often come with wicked headaches and potentially even wickeder stomachaches. But what people don't often know is that going to bed with a full stomach (or eating a greasy breakfast) after a night of drinking might actually make your stomachache worse in the morning: after a certain point, rather than "soaking up" the alcohol, the food will just... sit there. According to a 2015 study in the journal Alcohol Research, your body is concentrating on handling the alcohol, which slows your digestive system, and that can trigger indigestion and an unhappy stomach. So your body might be telling you that it needs time to recover before feeding it All The Things.

5. You Might Be Pregnant

Clemens Bilan/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

If your stomach seems to hate mornings these days, there might be a chance that your body is telling you that you're pregnant. Usually beginning around six weeks into the pregnancy and ending around 12 weeks in, morning sickness results from a surge of hormones in a pregnant person's body. Eating crackers 15 minutes before getting out of bed and avoiding warm places (heat can increase nausea) can be helpful for morning sickness, according to the American Pregnancy Association.

6. Your Pain Relief Medication Might Disagree With You

While over-the-counter pain medication is a go-to for many people looking to relieve anything from period cramps to headaches, pain relievers can also cause upset stomachs. Aspirin can weaken your stomach lining, and ibuprofen can cause heartburn. If you think your body is reacting badly to these medications, the British Heart Foundation website says it may be helpful to take your pain relief medicine with food.

7. You’re Getting (Or Already Have) Your Period

wavebreakmedia_Shutterstock

In addition to cramps, many people who menstruate find that their stomach churns uncomfortably before or during their period. That’s because people’s bodies release hormones during menstruation that encourage the body to hang on to water — this retention often can accompany bloating and ever-dreaded menstrual cramps. As your body cycles through ovulation, you might find yourself constipated: but as menstruation begins, diarrhea might occur as your body’s smooth muscle tissues start to relax. So sometimes, your upset stomach means that your period is approaching: or, unhelpfully perhaps, it’s telling you that you’re already on your period. According to a paper presented at a 2006 Physiological Society meeting, heating pads or warm water bottles help many people experiencing period pains, so you might want to get one ready when your stomach starts telling you to.

8. You Have IBS Or A Virus

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or a stomach flu virus may also be causing your upset stomach. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, people who have IBS often have stress- and anxiety-related flare-ups. So if you know you have IBS and you’re experiencing a flare-up, you might still want to check in with your body about your anxiety. And on the virus side, if you can’t keep fluids down for 24 hours, have a high fever, or have been vomiting for more than two days, it might be time to see a doctor if you can.

Whatever the cause of your upset stomach, it’s important to remember that your stomach is trying to talk to you — yes, even when you have a virus (then, it’s saying you’re sick! Rest so I can fight this thing, plzkthx!). Learning the language of your stomach can help you feel better faster, so it’s well worth the effort.