Man holding his stomach in discomfort while wondering if stress can cause nausea

Can Stress Cause Nausea?

Written on December 22, 2023 by Amy Harris, MS, RN, CNM. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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Stress can impact you emotionally and physically. There are many ways your body gives you the heads up that your stress levels are reaching high alert levels. Whether you listen to your body’s physical signs and symptoms of stress is up to you. Stress is a normal, healthy response to change in your environment, but too much stress is not always good for your health.

Growing research indicates that stress is harmful to our health.[1] Our body sends us many symptoms and signs when we let stress levels build, including nausea, headaches, high blood pressure, and exhaustion.[2] Everlywell wants to help you better understand the connection between physical symptoms like nausea and stress levels. Learning about stress, nausea, and their relationship to your overall health and well-being could get you closer to a healthier you.

What Is Nausea?

Nausea is a queasy or uneasy stomach with or without the feeling of vomiting.[2,3] Nausea can happen before vomiting. There are many different causes of nausea, including stress. Treatments for nausea depend on its cause.

Your Body’s Stress Response and Nausea

Stress can make you sick, literally, in the case of stress nausea and vomiting. Your stress response, also called the flight-fight-or-freeze reaction, begins in your brain. When you’re stressed, your body releases a flood of hormones, namely epinephrine. The hormones trigger changes in your body designed to prepare you for any possible threat, whether that threat is real or only something you perceive.[1]

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Stress Impacts Your Brain-Gut-Microbiome Communication System

You may be wondering, can stress cause nausea? Yes, it can because of the close connection between your body’s stress response, your brain-gut communication system, and your gut microbiome. Stress disrupts the normal balance of the brain-gut connection and your microbiome. This disruption can cause nausea and other physical gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms such as [4,5]:

  • Feeling butterflies in your stomach
  • Bloating
  • Pain
  • Gas

Your gut (stomach and intestines) have hundreds of millions of neurons (nerve cells) that constantly communicate with your brain.[5] Stress, via these neurons, changes the way your stomach and intestines (collectively called your gut) work by [6]:

  1. Altering gut motility (how your digested food moves through your gut), which can cause nausea, diarrhea, and constipation
  2. Increasing how intensely you feel nausea or other gut symptoms
  3. Changing how your gut functions (secretion and permeability)

Your gut is also home to millions of bacteria that make up your gut microbiome. Changes caused by the fight-or-flight response and chronic stress can also alter these bacteria, their impact on your moods, and how your gastrointestinal system functions.[5]

Other Ways Stress Can Cause Nausea

Beyond disrupting your gut microbiome, stress can drive people to eat in order to feel better — overeating or eating the wrong foods to cope with stress can cause nausea. Stress can either increase or decrease hunger.[5]

Stress can impact specific parts of your digestive tract that can cause you to feel nauseous as well.[7] For example, your esophagus, the tube carrying food from your mouth to your stomach, can spasm in response to stress or become sensitized from increased heartburn pain.[5] When you are experiencing stress, your ability to tolerate pain and discomfort decreases. Therefore, stress can intensify your experience of nausea and any bloating, pain, gas, or discomfort in your stomach or intestines.[6]

Besides Stress, What Else Causes Nausea?

Figuring out what might be causing your unsettled stomach can be tricky and time-consuming because there are many causes of nausea, ranging from mild to severe. Some of the most common causes of nausea other than stress are [3]:

  • Morning sickness (pregnancy)
  • Gastrointestinal virus (stomach bug) such as rotavirus or viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu)
  • Chemotherapy or other medications
  • Migraine
  • Motion sickness
  • Gastrointestinal Reflux Disease (GERD)
  • Food allergy or food intolerance

Stress is more likely to cause nausea in people who also have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions.[4]

When Should You See A Healthcare Provider About Your Nausea?

As tempting as it might be just to write off stress as the cause of your nausea, there are other more serious medical conditions responsible for persistent or severe nausea that you should rule out first. Some of these diseases and disorders include [3]:

  • Heart attack (nausea with chest pain, jaw pain, intense headache, or pain in left arm)
  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Appendicitis
  • Gallstones
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis (a complication of diabetes and hyperglycemia)
  • Hepatitis
  • Intestinal obstruction
  • Problems with your pancreas
  • Meningitis (a life-threatening infection of fluid and membranes surrounding the brain and spinal column)

Talking about all of your symptoms with a healthcare provider can help you better understand whether stress is causing your nausea or if there might be an underlying medical disease. It is a good idea to seek medical attention for your nausea if [3]:

  1. You are experiencing nausea and heart attack symptoms.
  2. You think you may have ingested a poisonous substance.
  3. You have nausea, a fever, a stiff neck, or other signs of meningitis.
  4. If you have not been able to eat or drink anything for longer than 12 hours, or your nausea has not improved after two days of trying over-the-counter medications or treatments.

Everlywell’s Tips For Reducing Stress

Knowing common symptoms of stress, such as nausea, can help you manage your stress levels before they begin to harm your health. Before stressing about your stress, you can easily rule out some medical causes of your symptoms.

Checking in with a healthcare provider when you are not feeling your best is always a good idea. If your busy schedule or the medical system makes an in-person appointment challenging, Everlywell offers you at-home tests like the Women’s Health Test so that you can take action with tests to ease your worries. Everlywell also offers fast, easy virtual telehealth consultations with nurse practitioners for many common health concerns.

Other ways to help lower your stress levels include [1,2,4]:

  • Get regular physical activity most days of the week.
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga.
  • Spend time with family and friends - your social network is a buffer against stress.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene — stress and sleep are connected.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet — try not to use food to treat your stress.

Everlywell understands that life is stressful. That is why we are working hard to make staying healthy easier and less stressful. Start taking better care of yourself today with Everlywell’s help.

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  1. Understanding the stress response. Harvard Health Publishing. Published July 6, 2020. Accessed December 16, 2023.
  2. Stress: Signs, symptoms, and management. Cleveland Clinic. Published January 18, 2021. Accessed December 18, 2023.
  3. Nausea and vomiting causes. Mayo Clinic. Published December 7, 2023. Accessed December 17, 2023.
  4. Stress nausea: Why it happens and how to deal with it. Cleveland Clinic. Published February 18, 2022. Accessed December 16, 2023.
  5. Stress effects on the body. American Psychological Association (APA). Published March 8, 2023. Accessed December 16, 2023.
  6. Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011 Dec;62(6):591-9. PMID: 22314561.
  7. Chang YM, El-Zaatari M, Kao JY. Does stress induce bowel dysfunction? Expert Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2014;8(6):583-585. doi:10.1586/17474124.2014.911659.
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