3 Ways Your Stomach Is Telling You That Your Heart's in Trouble

How to tell if your upset stomach or heartburn means something even more worrisome.

Shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, pain in the arm or shoulder… People know to look out for these classic symptoms of a heart attack. But other signs of heart problems can manifest in surprising ways—particularly in the form of stomach trouble. The gut relates to so many aspects of one's health, it makes sense that it would be connected to the heart as well. "The gut microbiome is one of the largest and most important microbiomes in the body," explains Mahmud Kara, MD, the creator of KaraMD.com and an internal medicine specialist. "It contains millions of neurons that interact with other parts of the body beyond just the digestive tract."

"Think about it," Kara adds. "When we are developing in the womb, everything is connected by one long tube. As we develop, that tube may expand into a more complex system but the underlying connection still remains. This is why the gut microbiome is often linked to various health areas such as immunity, cognitive health, heart health, skin appearance, digestion, energy, and more." Read on to find out what your stomach might be trying to tell you about your heart.

RELATED: If Your Legs Feel Like This, Get Your Heart Checked.

Heartburn could mean heart trouble.


Most of us are familiar with the feeling of heartburn, a burning sensation in the chest or stomach that is sometimes accompanied by acid reflux. Many things can cause heartburn—such as eating greasy or spicy foods, sleeping in certain positions, and snacking late at night—which happens when digestive acid finds its way into the esophagus. But a similar feeling may occur when a person experiences heart problems.

Insufficient flow of blood to the heart can lead to chest pain that's akin to the discomfort of indigestion, Harvard Health reports. In fact, "of the over eight million emergency room visits for chest pain each year, severe heartburn accounts for over half the cases in which actual heart problems are ruled out."

So how can you tell the difference between heartburn and heart trouble? The American Heart Association explains that chest pain from a heart attack "lasts more than a few minutes, or… goes away and comes back." In addition, "it can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain." Kara advises to always seek medical attention if you have worrisome symptoms.

Swelling may be related to heart health.


Stomach swelling may seem like it's more likely to occur after overindulging in food and drink, but it can actually be a symptom of heart failure. Congestive heart failure (CHF) can cause a buildup of blood in the chest, which then seeps down into the stomach. The result of this collection of fluids may be a swollen abdomen.

When stomach swelling occurs along with other symptoms (including wheezing, shortness of breath, swelling in the legs, and/or an irregular heartbeat), it might be a sign of heart failure. According to the Mount Sinai Health System, you should seek help from a doctor if the swelling occurs with other warning signs and gets progressively worse. A tender stomach, fever, unusual bowel movements, or the inability to drink or eat are indicators that you may need professional help.

A heart-healthy diet can help prevent stomach swelling caused by both digestive issues and heart trouble. "Certain foods can help your heart in different ways," says Kara, who also recommends staying hydrated. "Drink plenty of water. Keeping your water intake high is part of a healthy heart protocol."

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Is it a heart attack or a stomach bug?


Is it heart trouble, food poisoning, or a stomach bug? Sometimes the symptoms can seem indistinguishable. Nausea and vomiting can occur during a heart attack because of both a decrease in cardiac function and release of metabolites due to inadequate blood supply. "Symptoms of a possible heart issue can include—but are not limited to—chest discomfort, nausea, heartburn/indigestion, stomach pain, [and] dizziness," explains Kara. "On the other hand, symptoms of a GI bug like the stomach flu, or food-related illnesses like food poisoning, can be similar as these issues may lead to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and heartburn."

Some symptoms can help you to tell the difference. "Heart-related issues, unlike symptoms of a bug or food-related illness, may include chest numbness or pain that can spread to the arms, legs, or neck/jaw/throat area," says Kara. "Ultimately, you should always consult your physician or seek medical attention if you have concerning symptoms."

Protect your heart with healthy habits.

iStock/Daniel de la Hoz

Given the connection between the gut and your heart, a healthy diet—in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle—is an important component of heart disease prevention. Learning about your ideal calorie count and how you can engage in regular physical activity is key. "In order to improve your heart health, education is foundational," says Kara. "Learning what foods to eat, how to exercise, and how to manage stress."

The American Heart Association recommends at least 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity, 150 minutes of moderate physical activity, or an equal combination of both every week: "Regular physical activity can help you maintain your weight, keep off weight that you lose and reach physical and cardiovascular fitness."

Whole grains, avocado, fish and fish oil, beans, and leafy greens are a must for a healthy heart, according to Kara—in addition to drinking enough water. "Water is one of the foundational components that keeps our body and all of its systems functioning at their best, so drinking enough during the day is essential for your health," he says.

Kara also recommends avoiding high-sugar and processed foods, refined carbohydrates, excess alcohol and sodium, and foods with additives and toxins. "These foods can cause numerous health issues, and can have a negative impact on your heart health," he says. And finally, steer clear of tobacco products—which "can permanently damage your heart and blood vessels," warns the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "This can lead to cardiovascular disease."

RELATED: The 3 Signs Your Chest Pain Isn't a Heart Attack, Experts Say.

Luisa Colón
Luisa Colón is a writer, editor, and consultant based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Latina, and many more. Read more
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