Sensitive Stomach (Digestion) Meaning, Causes and Symptoms

There are several ways that common symptoms are described by most people, without using proper medical terms. A sensitive stomach is one such term and the meaning can even vary to some degree from person to person. However, the general consensus is that a sensitive stomach refers to digestive symptoms that arise or are worsened by certain foods and sometimes by psychological state and lifestyle factors.

Meaning of Sensitive Stomach

Although the stomach technically refers to the digestive organ located in the upper abdomen, many people incorrectly refer to the entire abdomen or even the entire digestive tract as the stomach. Therefore a sensitive stomach may at times refer to the abdomen as a location or the digestive system, including the bowels (intestines). As the location may vary, the symptoms can also differ from one case of a sensitive stomach to another.

Occasional gastrointestinal disturbances are not uncommon even in the absence of any disease. For example, an unappetizing food or overeating can cause digestive symptoms. However, in people with a sensitive stomach the symptoms are elicited by even foods or beverages that would not normally irritate others. The symptoms are also triggered or worsened in instances like nervousness or anxiety, with physical activity and other non-digestive factors.

Digestive symptoms should not be simply passed off as a ‘sensitive stomach’ without further diagnostic investigation. Sometimes even the mildest of symptoms can be due to serious diseases. Always speak to a medical professional is the sensitive stomach symptoms are worsening, persisting or recurring.

Signs and Symptoms

Sometimes the signs and symptoms of what a person terms a ‘sensitive stomach’ can be vague, such as a ‘butterflies in the stomach’ feeling. However, in most cases the symptoms are more specific and include:

  • Nausea and sometimes vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Excessive belching
  • Loud and/or excessive bowel sounds
  • Abdominal discomfort or pain
  • Abdominal distension
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Excessive flatulence

Given that the term refers specifically to the stomach, a sensitive stomach usually presents with upper digestive symptoms like nausea, heartburn, belching, bloating and upper abdominal pain. It is important to note that these symptoms may arise with a number of different gastrointestinal diseases and sometimes even with non-digestive conditions.

Also read more on sour stomach.

Causes of a Sensitive Stomach

Digestion itself starts from the mouth and continues down the esophagus, stomach and small intestine. Absorption also occurs along the way, with most absorption occuring within the small intestine. In the large intestine there is less digestion and more absorption of water and residual nutrients. Eventually wastes and undigested material are evacuated from the large intestine in the form of stool.


Reflux is where the stomach contents flow backward up into the esophagus. This is more correctly known as acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Sometimes the contents from the duodenum of the small intestine may also flow backwards. This is known as bile reflux. Overall acid reflux is far more common.

Many factors can worsen acid reflux, like overeating, alcohol, caffeine spicy foods, lying flat and so on. Psychological stress may also aggravate reflux. It is mainly due to a weakening of the lower esophageal sphincter which separates the esophagus and stomach. This weakening may be momentary.


The stomach wall has several ways to withstand the corrosive stomach aid and digestive enzymes within it. This ensures that the stomach tissue is not damaged by these substances. However, these mechanisms can fail and it leads to inflammation of the stomach wall known as gastritis.

Excessive use of NSAIDs is one way that the stomach mechanisms fail. Another common cause is infection with H.pylori bacteria that can withstand the stomach acid. Alcohol, toxins and other substances can also cause or worsen gastritis. The symptoms tend to worsen when hungry and shortly after eating.

Peptic Ulcers

Peptic ulcers are open sores that form in the wall of the stomach or duodenum (small intestine). It is often associated with gastritis and therefore due to many of the same causes, such as excessive NSAID use and H.pylori infection. Duodenal ulcers tend to be more common and the symptoms of both stomach and duodenal ulcers may appear largely the same.

Similar to gastritis, the symptoms worsen with hunger or after eating. Usually symptoms like upper abdominal pain tends to be worse than with gastritis. If the ulcer is bleeding then there may be black particles in the vomit. Spicy foods, alcoholic beverages, chewing gum, smoking and stress may also aggravate the symptoms.


Gallstones are small hard masses that develop from bile in the gallbladder. Tiny stones may pass out unnoticed but larger stones and a group of small stones are more likely to cause symptoms due to obstruction of the gallbladder or bile ducts.

Since bile is necessary for fat digestion, the symptoms are often more prominent after eating a fatty meal. There is upper middle abdominal pain which may radiate to the right shoulder. This pain occurs as attacks usually with nausea. The poorly digested fat may cause diarrhea and fatty stool.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional bowel disorder where movement through the bowels is either too fast or too slow. Abdominal pain or cramps is common along with change in bowel habit (diarrhea, constipation or both alternating). There is no known cause.

Most IBS sufferers find a sensitivity to certain foods where the symptoms may worsen or a specific food may even trigger flareups. Stimulants like caffeine and tobacco may also cayse aggravations. Psychological stress, insufficient sleep and physical exertion all tend to worsen symptoms.

Food Intolerance

A food intolerance occurs when the body cannot digest certain nutrients and to a lesser extent when the gut cannot absorb it. Lactose intolerance is the most common type of food intolerance where people reacto to milk and dairy products due to the lack of an enzyme known as lactase.

The symptoms start a short period after consuming the problem food. It may then worsen over hours and gradually subside once it the problem food is expelled from the gut, usually with stool. Avoiding the problem food in most cases does not cause the symptoms to arise. However, it may be unknowingly consumed in certain foods.

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