What’s a sensitive stomach?

The term “sensitive stomach” is a nonmedical way to describe a stomach that’s easily upset. People with a sensitive stomach may experience recurring gas, bloating, nausea, vomiting, constipation, or diarrhea.

Someone who has a sensitive stomach might connect their sensitivity to certain foods or situations. Others might experience discomfort or digestive disruptions without being sure of the cause.

At some point, everyone experiences stomach upset. But if you regularly deal with discomfort, indigestion, or changing bowel habits, you may have a sensitive stomach.

What causes a sensitive stomach?

Some people with chronic stomach discomfort are more sensitive to certain foods — like dairy, spicy foods, alcohol, or fried foods. Others may find that they have food intolerances which, unlike food allergies, are not life-threatening sensitivities.

Unlike those with food allergies, people with food intolerances may be able to tolerate small amounts of the foods in question. People with a dairy sensitivity can take enzymes that help them digest lactose.

Irritable bowel syndrome

Sometimes, people who experience frequent stomach issues have something more going on than just sensitivity. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is one common culprit behind ongoing stomach trouble.

While its signature symptoms are similar to those of a sensitive stomach, chronic bowel pain is usually involved with IBS. This is due to inflammation in the intestines that tends to be made worse by certain foods.

IBS prevents your stomach and intestines from functioning optimally. Some people with IBS have chronic constipation, while others experience ongoing diarrhea. IBS affects the mobility of the contents of your intestines. This causes:

  • changes in bowel habits
  • trapped gas
  • abdominal pain

Women tend to be diagnosed with IBS more often than men. Women who have had surgeries like C-sections or hysterectomies may be more prone to IBS than others.

Inflammatory bowel disease

If your symptoms are severe, your doctor may perform tests to diagnose you with an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, severe conditions that require prescription anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive drugs.

These therapies may also be supplemented with medications to regulate bowel movements, stop diarrhea, prevent infection, and manage pain. Iron supplements might also be prescribed if you have chronic intestinal bleeding.

What are the symptoms of a sensitive stomach?

Most symptoms of a sensitive stomach can easily be treated at home. These include:

  • intestinal gas
  • bloating
  • indigestion
  • heartburn
  • acid reflux
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • occasional abdominal pain
  • constipation
  • diarrhea

But if you have the following severe symptoms, contact your doctor immediately:

  • chronic or severe abdominal pain that makes it difficult for you to do your normal activities
  • blood or pus in your stool
  • severe, ongoing diarrhea that lasts for more than two days
  • nighttime diarrhea that keeps you from sleeping
  • unexplained fever
  • allergic reaction (hives, swelling, itching, etc.)

These symptoms may signal a serious condition. Your doctor will perform testing to determine the cause of your symptoms and diagnose the issue.

How to treat a sensitive stomach

Because there are many things that can upset a sensitive stomach, it can take time to pinpoint and solve the problem. Here are some remedies you can try at home to alleviate your discomfort.

Eat smaller portions

Filling your stomach too much can make you gassy and give you indigestion. Try reducing the amount of food you put on your plate at each meal.

Eating five or six small meals per day may also be more comfortable for your stomach than eating three large meals.

Eat more slowly

Eating too quickly can also give you unpleasant trapped gas and indigestion. Make sure your food is well-chewed before you swallow, since digestion starts long before the food reaches your stomach.

Eliminate potentially irritating foods

Foods that can irritate a sensitive stomach include:

  • dairy
  • spicy foods
  • processed foods
  • oily or fried foods
  • alcohol
  • gluten

It might take a little trial and error, but identifying and eliminating foods you’re sensitive to will go a long way. If you already suspect what foods might be triggers for your sensitivity, it can be helpful to find substitute foods or foods that are similar in texture or taste.

And if your stomach is especially sensitive, you might decide to eliminate all possible triggers to begin with to relieve your symptoms. If you choose to reintroduce these triggers one at a time later, you’ll be able to identify the problematic food.

Drink more water

If you don’t drink enough water every day, you might be chronically dehydrated without realizing it. Inadequate water intake can cause problems with digestion and elimination.

If you don’t have enough water in your body, your colon can’t pull enough water in for proper bowel movements. In other words, if you don’t drink enough, you could end up constipated.

Lower your caffeine intake

Caffeine can be a stomach irritant. If you consume high amounts every day, lowering your caffeine intake could soothe your stomach.

You might also consider changing the time of day when you drink caffeine to see if that helps. If caffeine is the main culprit, you may want to gradually eliminate it from your diet.

Reduce your stress

Chronic stress can lead to an upset stomach. If you aren’t able to pinpoint irritating foods, it might be that stress is triggering your discomfort. Consider adding a stress-relieving practice to your routine, like meditation or yoga.

Foods that tend to be soothing to people with sensitive stomachs include:

  • cooked fruits and vegetables
  • lean protein
  • easily digestible grains
  • fat-free or low-fat dairy

Your doctor may also recommend a short-term, low-fiber diet to ease your discomfort.

If you’re diagnosed with one or more food intolerances, your doctor will recommend you eliminate the food or foods in question. If you are diagnosed with an autoimmune condition like celiac disease, you’ll have to go on a gluten-free diet to manage your symptoms.

If your doctor diagnoses you with a food allergy, you may be prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector. You’ll need to strictly avoid your allergens, as even a small exposure could cause you to have a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.

Even if you’ve only had small allergic reactions in the past, the next one could be severe or deadly.

What’s the outlook for a sensitive stomach?

Most people with sensitive stomachs can successfully manage their symptoms at home through dietary and lifestyle adjustments.

Sometimes, though, stomach discomfort can indicate a more serious condition like IBS, IBD, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis.

If you are concerned about any of the symptoms you’re experiencing, contact your doctor.