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Being nauseous: Can stress cause nausea?

Being nauseous and nausea: A lot has been written about the effects of stress. Symptoms like headaches, dizziness and fatigue are well-known. But stress can also cause nausea.

Feeling lethargic or feeling like you have to throw up are very inconvenient. Where does this nausea come from? How can you recognise it? What happens inside the body when you become nauseous? You can find the answers to these questions below. We also included several tips to alleviate nausea.

Causes of nausea

Many different things can give you feelings of nausea. The vomiting centre, the part of the brain that causes nausea and controls the vomiting response, receives information from various parts of the brain. A nauseous feeling is influenced by scents, smells, tastes or sights. The vomiting centre also receives information from your gastrointestinal tract and the vestibular system (balancing organ).

The time of day your experience nausea usually says something about its cause. Nausea in the morning can indicate excess alcohol use or pregnancy. If you become nauseaous after eating, it’s probably caused by an issue with your gastrointestinal tract. The longer it takes for you to experience complaints after a meal, the lower the problem in your body.

nausea and stress symptoms

Other possible causes of nausea are:

  • Problems with the central nervous system, such as migraines, infections or head trauma.
  • Problems with the balancing organ, including travel sickness,
  • Meniere’s disease or benign paroxysmal positional vertigo
  • Psychological causes, such as bulimia nervosa, reflexogenic vomiting, depression, anxiety or stress
  • Other causes, for instance side-effects of drugs, chemotherapy or a flu virus

Symptoms of nausea caused by stress

When you’re nausous you don’t feel like eating. You don’t even want food to come near you. Nausea often leads to vomiting, but this rarely occurs when nausea is caused by stress. You often feel lethargic and experience discomfort in your stomach or intestines. Nausea caused by for instance food poisoning or the flu will disappear quickly.

When nausea is caused by stress the nausea will appear more often, particularly during anxious or stressful situations. It also takes longer for the complaints to disappear. As a result of this you wille at less, causing you to lose weight and consume less essential nutrients. Your body actually has an increased need for these nutrients when experiencing stress.

Also read: Recognizing Stress: How do you recognize stress signals from your body?

The connection between nausea and anxiety

Research from a Norwegian university has shown that 24% of the people plagued by nausea experience depression and 41% have an anxiety disorder. The researchers suspect that depression and anxiety cause decreased activity of the vagus nerve. This is the cranial nerve that controls many of your intestinal processes.

This nerve in your brain is also less active whenever you’re anxious. This will cause you to feel nauseous, which causes your vagus nerve to be even less active.

What happens inside your body when you’re nauseous?

Not all the foods we eat are safe. Your body tries to fight against the intake of harmful substances by vomiting or making you feel nauseous. The vomiting process can be divided into two stages.

During the first stage you feel nausea and you might experience the occasional belch (during which a bit of gastric acid enters your esophagus). You’ll sometimes be able to avoid vomiting in this stage, especially when the cause of your nausea is known and is removed. Your stomach produces less gastric acid in this stage and your stomach functioning is slowed down by the vomiting centre in your brain. You produce more saliva (to protect your teeth against the gastric acid) and food is pushed back up from the duodenum.

That’s when the second stage starts: vomiting is now inevitable. Your abs muscles contract and at the same time your esophagus relaxes in a knee-jerk reaction. This causes your stomach content to move upwards.

You could try to suppress it, but the stomach content will find a way out through your mouth or through your fingers. You might start to sweat profusely and your heartrate will lower. If you throw up the cause when vomiting (for instance in case of food poisoning), you will feel a lot better afterwards. If there’s a different cause to the vomiting, you will usually experience more bursts of nausea and vomiting.

nausea and stress symptoms

Possible underlying conditions

Nausea, stomach complaints and other gastrointestinal problems can have various causes. Several ones are closely related to anxiety or stress.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome is one of the conditions of the gastrointestinal tract triggered or worsened by stress. It is estimated that 5 to 15 percent of the Dutch population suffers from IBS. Three quarters of those affected are female. Symptoms include flatulence, a bloated feeling, diarrhea and stomach cramps.

The possible underlying cause is a disturbance in the production of serotonin. Ninety percent of this substance is made in the intestines and controls the contractions of this organ. A disturbance in the production of serotonin therefore leads to diarrhea or constipation. This hormone is also called the happiness hormone.

When people experience stress or negative emotions, less serotonin is found in their blood. Since this hormone plays such an important role in the intestines, you’re likely to experience stomach aches when under stress. There’s no clear-cut treatment for IBS. Certain drugs help some people others avoid certain foods or use probiotics. In most cases it’s advised to avoid stress and anxiety as much as possible, since these aggravate the complaints.

Emetophobia

More than 100,000 people in the Netherlands and Belgium have a fear of vomiting. These people avoid products that once caused them to feel nauseous out of a fear of having to vomit when eating or drinking it again. They also don’t feel comfortable in public, because they don’t want others to see them vomit. Some even experience anxiety when seeing images or videos of people vomiting.

As soon as you start to feel nauseous you could have a panic attack. Such an attack increases the chance of actually having to vomit. It’s therefore a vicious cycle. The cause isn’t always clear. Psychological guidance can usually help to get this phobia under control. Psychologists use mindfulness, relaxation exercises and cognitive behavioural therapy to help people overcome this fear.

nausea and stress symptoms

When to visit your doctor in case of nausea?

Non-recurring nausea is usually harmless. If you however experience one of the following symptoms, it’s wise to contact your physician:

  • If your vomit contains blood
  • If you’ve been vomiting for more than two days in a row and you have dark urine
  • If vomiting and nausea is paired with a stomach ache that lasts longer than an hour
  • If you’re car sick and experience tinnitus or are unable to hear anything at all
  • If you’ve felt nauseous for a longer period of time without a clear cause

If the doctor determines a clear cause for your nausea, you might be given drugs. The type of medication depends on the cause of your complaints.

What can you do to alleviate nausea?

When you’re nauseous it’s wise to eat little amounts. Try to avoid fatty foods such as deep fried products. Avoid expired foods or food that smells spoiled. It’s also better to avoid alcohol as long as you feel nauseous. Cold drinks could also negatively affect a nauseous stomach. It’s better to consume warm or room temperature drinks. In any way it’s important to drink enough to avoid dyhydration.

What can you do to alleviate nausea?

Natural remedies

Various natural remedies and tricks exist to alleviate your nausea. Several studies have shown that ginger helps to lessen nausea complaints.

A daily dose of 0.5 to 1.5 grams of dried ginger root should suffice. The smell of peppermint or drinking peppermint tea apparently has favourable effects when feeling nauseous. It’s furthermore important to relax. You could achieve this by doing breathing exercises, consciously relaxing your muscles or by becoming physically active.

Relaxation exercise against nausea

Tension in your neck or back could sometimes worsen nausea. You can relax your back by lying down on a mat with extended legs against the wall. Place your hands on your stomach and calmly inhale and exhale. Stay in this position for at least five minutes or about fifty calm breaths. This decreases the stress in your body and alleviates your nausea.

Acupressure exercise

Acupressure is an ancient Chinese healing method. It is aimed at changing the pain messages your nerves send to your brain. In any case this exercise has relaxing effects. The pressure point is located on the forearm, about a fingerlength away from your wrist, between the two major tendons. Use your other thumb to apply some pressure to find the right spot. You can’t miss it, because it’s quite sensitive when you apply some more pressure.

Once you’ve found the pressure point, you massage it back and forth with your thumb to the rhythm of your breathing. Make sure you calmly inhale and exhale while doing this. Apply pressure towards your wrist while breathing in and release the pressure when breathing out. Do this for the duration of twenty breaths. After this you could massage the pressure point on your other forearm if you please.

Relaxation exercises

Relaxation exercises help to alleviate stress. Although such exercises provide only temporary relief, they often yield immediate results.

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About Milltain

Milltain supports, with a team of experienced trainers, organizations in the prevention of stress and the (re) finding of work happiness in the workplace. Our training courses are aimed at managers within companies. A burnout quickly costs the organization € 70,000.

In addition to financial suffering, human suffering is great. Not only for the employee but also for close colleagues who have to deal with the blows. Before you know it you are in a negative vicious circle.

Do you want an effective approach to long-term absenteeism and increasing work pleasure? (instead of extinguishing continuous fires).

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About the author
My name is Ruud Meulenberg. Owner and founder of Milltain and Meulenberg Training & Coaching.
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