Listen To Your Gut

Whether you’re experiencing a fit of anxiety or the effects of too much jalapeño pizza, your digestive system has a lot to tell you. Here’s how to figure out what it’s trying to say.

You're sitting in math class when out of nowhere you're hit with a wicked stomach ache. Was lasagna for breakfast not the best choice? Are you allergic to trigonometry? Or is it something else entirely? The truth is we get stomach aches for a variety of reasons—and not all of them are physical. Sometimes stomach aches have nothing to with what’s in your body, but instead are caused by what’s in your mind. “Feelings of anxiety might come out as stomach pain or nausea, even though the problem didn’t initiate in the digestive system,” explains Dr. Hillary Bashaw, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Emory University. At the same time, there are a lot of physical reasons your stomach might not be happy, from hunger to indigestion to the flu. Tuning in to your digestive system can not only help you feel better in the moment, but can also motivate you to make diet or lifestyle changes so you feel better all the time—and not just in your belly.

So how do you figure out what exactly is going on the next time you feel pain in your abdomen? Read below for a handy guide to decoding what your stomach ache might mean.

OUCH! Your Stomach Hurts. What's up?

START HERE: Are you feeling worried or overwhelmed?

Yes? It might be stress

Stress is one of the most common causes of tummy trouble. That’s because your brain and your digestive system are closely linked. When you feel stressed about something, your brain releases hormones that divert blood away from your digestive system and can also cause your stomach muscles to contract. You might feel nauseated, bloated, or like you have butterflies in your stomach.

What to Do: 

If you’re feeling stressed and your stomach is hurting, try taking deep breaths, going a walk, doing some gentle stretching, or listening to music. If something has been stressing you out for a long time, try talking to a trusted adult or a counselor about what is on your mind.

If No -> Have you eaten recently?

No? It Might Be Hunger

When there isn’t enough food in your stomach, acid builds up and can damage your stomach lining, causing pain. Dehydration can also cause stomach pain. When you’re dehydrated, the organs in your digestive system don’t have the water they need to work well.

What to Do:

Eat something! But don’t just reach for the nearest candy bar—the rush of sugar could make your stomach ache worse. Instead, aim for a mix of protein and carbohydrates: a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit; carrots and hummus; cheese and crackers. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water—even before you feel thirsty!

If Yes -> Was the food old or undercooked, or did it have a funny taste or smell?

Yes? It might be food poisoning

Food that is spoiled or undercooked can contain harmful bacteria, viruses, or parasites that irritate your stomach lining, causing cramps, nausea, and vomiting.

What to Do:

Drink water to avoid becoming dehydrated. When you start to feel better, try broth, herbal tea, or bland food like toast. If you don’t feel better after a few days, call a doctor. To prevent food poisoning, keep perishable food in the fridge, check expiration dates, and make sure poultry and meat are fully cooked.

If No -> Was the food spicier than you’re used to, or did you overeat?

Yes? It might be indigestion 

Eating too much food or spicier food than you normally eat can cause bloating or a burning feeling near the top of your stomach.

What to Do:

Indigestion should go away in a few hours. In the meantime, avoid lying down (which can make it worse). To prevent indigestion, eat smaller portions eat slowly, and avoid spicy foods if they give you trouble.

If No -> Do you have a fever and/or body aches?

Yes? It might be stomach flu

Stomach flu can be caused by many different viruses. Your stomach wants to get rid of the virus ASAP, so you’ll likely throw up. You might also have chills, a headache, diarrhea, and fatigue.

What to Do:

The flu is contagious, so stay home to avoid spreading germs. It’s also important to eat and drink, so your body has energy to fight the virus. Try bland foods like bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. If you’re not better in a few days, call your doctor. To avoid the flu, wash your hands often!

If No -> Do you get the pain every time you eat certain foods?

Yes? It might be a food intolerance 

Some people’s digestive systems can’t process certain foods like wheat or dairy. If one type of food tends to give you a stomach ache, you might have an intolerance to it.

What to Do:

Talk to a doctor before changing your diet. Your doctor might give you a test to diagnose if you have a true food intolerance. If you do, the doctor can help you find healthy alternatives.

If No -> We're Stumped!

Sometimes stomach aches happen for no apparent reason. You might try drinking water and having a small snack. Also try taking some deep breaths, either while resting with your hands on your belly or while walking slowly around the block. If you continue to get unexplained stomach aches or the pain is severe, be sure to talk to your doctor about it.

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