First the good news: mental stress does not cause stomach ulcers.
But before you heave a sigh of relief, let me warn you that it is, well, complicated. Read the full article to understand how stress affects stomach ulcers.
Your stomach secretes strong acid for digesting food. To prevent the stomach cells from getting damaged by this acid, your body secretes mucus that lines the inner walls of your stomach.
Some factors erode the mucus lining, resulting in a stomach ulcer, which is a sore with painful swelling and occasionally, bleeding.
To be more precise, it is called a peptic ulcer because such an ulcer can be formed in the stomach as well as the early part of the intestines—duodenum.
I will not discuss the symptoms, diagnostic tests, and treatment of peptic ulcers as there are many authority websites that cover them. I have given the links to those articles at the end.
Causes of Stomach Ulcers
If stress does not cause stomach ulcers, what does? Experts agree that there are three factors:
Nearly 50% to 75% of people have Helicobacter pylori bacteria in their gut—that infection comes through food and water. How do they survive the harsh stomach acid? They live inside the mucus layer and produce an enzyme that neutralises stomach acid.
For most people, these bacteria cause no trouble. However, in some individuals, they overwhelm the immune system occasionally and grow in numbers. Their increased enzyme production forces the stomach to make more acid causing damage to the stomach lining.
Nearly forty per cent of stomach ulcers are linked to H. pylori. So when you take proper antibiotics, such ulcers heal.
Sounds too fantastical? All the world’s scientists also thought so until Dr Barry Marshall decided to prove this by drinking a concoction made of H. pylori and developed stomach ulcers in his own stomach. Then, he took antibiotics to get rid of the bacteria and the ulcers. For such a risky but pioneering work, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 2005.
Painkillers Called NSAIDs
Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) are medicines used for controlling pain, fever and inflammation. Some common NSAIDs are aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and diclofenac.
In many countries, people take them casually for minor problems without a prescription; but these are powerful medicines and have long-term side effects, such as stomach ulcers.
NSAIDs decrease the protective mucus layer thickness; they also reduce the blood supply to the stomach. Together, these factors make the stomach more susceptible to acid damage and prevent the body from healing it.
About fifty per cent of stomach ulcers are caused by NSAID overuse. Be warned about using them casually!
Finally, a few per cent of stomach ulcers are caused by cancerous stomach tumours which increase acid secretion.
As you have read, mental stress is not a cause of stomach ulcers, though a few researchers still claim so.
On the other hand, many people with highly stressful lives have stomach ulcers. So how is stress linked with stomach ulcers?
How Stress Increases Stomach Ulcer Risk
Mental stress can speed up the development of stomach ulcers. It can also worsen an ulcer already present or prevent its healing. Why does that happen?
- Stress increases stomach acid secretion, which can worsen an already-forming ulcer.
- Highly stressed individuals may resort to NSAIDs to reduce their aches and pains.
- People under stress may smoke more, which is found to increase the chances of developing ulcers but the mechanism is unclear.
- Stressed people may resort to excessive alcohol consumption, which can worsen acidity (heartburn) through various mechanisms. Read on this website: Does alcohol worsen acidity?
- When one is stressed, the stress hormones released reduce the body’s immunity, which can trigger an H. pylori surge or prevent an ulcer from healing.
Some illnesses and surgeries can cause physical stress, which can lead to a different type of ulcer called stress ulcer. While this is also a stomach ulcer, its development, progress, and treatment are totally different from those of the stomach ulcers discussed above. And Plus, mental stress cannot cause them; only physical stress can.
- While mental stress does not cause stomach ulcers, it can speed up their development, worsen their condition, and prevent their healing.
- Learn stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness.
- Consider adaptogenic supplements for stress reduction.
- Avoid NSAID medicines, unless absolutely necessary or recommended by a doctor.
- Stop smoking and reduce alcohol consumption if you have stress. They form a lethal combination.