Are Stomach Ulcers Caused By Stress And Diet?

It's a Common Belief That Stress Can Cause Stomach Ulcers

Pasta Dish
Could spicy food lead to a stomach ulcer?. Photo © Serge Bertasius Photography /

Have you ever heard that eating a spicy meal or being under too much stress can cause ulcers in the stomach? Ulcers are holes in the lining of the stomach that can lead to symptoms of pain, heartburn, nausea, poor appetite, vomiting, weight loss, and even bleeding. Many people mistakenly believe that lifestyle factors such as high amounts of stress or eating very spicy food can cause these holes in the stomach.

However, this is not true at all.

What Does Cause Stomach Ulcers?

Neither emotional stress nor diet can lead to stomach ulcers. In fact, the most common cause of stomach ulcers -- 90% of them -- is actually a bacteria. The name of the bacteria is Helicobacter pylori. A less common cause of stomach ulcers is from a common type of painkiller called NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). Sometimes ulcers form in the stomach for other reasons, but they can also happen without knowing the reason for them occurring at all.

The bacteria H. pylori is present in the stomach of approximately two-thirds of all people, and especially in older adults. Even so, most people never develop ulcers. It's not understood why some people develop stomach ulcers and some do not, or even how H. pylori is spread. It is thought that H. pylori might be spread from person to person, especially through the "fecal oral" route, which could mean the bacteria is present on hands after going to the bathroom, and spread after touching surfaces or another person; or the "oral-oral" route, which could mean kissing or other close contact.

The good news is, stomach ulcers caused by H. pylori are generally treated with antibiotics and sometimes a proton pump inhibitor to reduce stomach acid. The bacteria is usually eradicated within 10 to 14 days. The ulcers themselves may take a longer time to heal, usually between 6 to 8 weeks. Finishing all the antibiotics is important to make sure the bacteria is completely gone.

Eating a bland diet during treatment isn't necessary, although certain foods (coffee, carbonated beverages) and smoking cigarettes may make symptoms worse.

NSAIDS are drugs which can be prescribed by a physician or can be bought over-the-counter. Long-term use of these drugs, which include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, can lead to the development of stomach ulcers. NSAIDs relieve pain, but they also block prostaglandins, which is a substance that works to protect the lining of the stomach. People taking NSAIDs for long periods of time should carefully discuss the use of these drugs with a physician, in order to avoid potential complications. Ulcers caused by NSAIDs are treated by discontinuing the use of those drugs and by taking a proton pump inhibitor to reduce stomach acid.

Do Stress and Spicy Food Have Any Connection To Ulcers?

Like any medical condition, existing stomach ulcers can be exacerbated by situations such as too much emotional stress, but stress is not a cause. Diet can also contribute to the worsening of symptoms (alcohol and spicy food included), but food does not cause ulcers. 


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Ulcers." U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 23 Feb 2011. 9 Sept 2015.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. "H. pylori and Peptic Ulcers." National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Apr 2010. 5 Feb 2014.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. "NSAIDs and Peptic Ulcers." National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Apr 2010. 5 Feb 2014.

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