Why Do I Get Butterflies in My Stomach?

Everyone I know has experienced a fluttery feeling in the stomach be it before a big first date or a huge presentation. Most of us know this feeling by not so methodical name of ‘butterflies in the tummy’, but it turns out to be that there are some reasonable scientific facts behind this sensation. So, those pre-presentation jitters that result in weird stomach acrobatics are completely normal, as the digestive system is very closely related to a person’s thought.

Butterflies to the rescue?!

Butterflies in the stomach are associated with the system’s fight or flight response. According to Learn Genetics Centre, Utah, USA, when the brain perceives a potential threat to survival, it heightens alertness by increasing blood pressure, heart rate and the breathing rate. Meanwhile, the nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands, which releases the hormones Cortisol and Adrenaline that make the body a tense, sweaty mess; perspiration happens to cools down the body. Specifically in the stomach, muscle tension helps to keep us alert. The smooth muscle lining is extremely sensitive during the fight-or-flight response. This added sensitivity can be blamed for that fluttery sensation.

Many researchers regard the stomach as the “second brain”. This is based on the finding that the gut carries some 100 million neurons that signal the brain, scientifically referred as the brain-gut axis. So whenever we feel nervous before a stage debut, the brain communicates the anxiety to the gut, which sometimes causes the case of “stomach getting some wings”. To understand the exact reason behind the incident of butterflies, let’s rewind a few million years.

I’ve Gut a Feeling

The fight-or-flight reaction is believed to be a part of an evolutionary response. Earlier, when people had to be prepared to flee away from the attack of lions or any other prehistoric beasts, rise in heart rate and tense muscles may have helped them making a quick escape. So even though a job interview or a first date isn’t as life threatening, the body deals with the same kind of stress as when facing a lion chase.

Also it is very common that your stomach does flip flops and heartbeat isn’t controllable, during early stages of a relationship; this is most likely due to nervousness. They are potentially a positive sign of subconscious feeling for the romantic interest. Caused due to mood-altering endorphins, this feeling can be frequent (or not) and is completely harmless.

Oh and how can we forget the urge to throw up before that interview? Sometimes these butterflies can turn into nausea, because the adrenaline rush can temporally hamper the digestion process.  Blood is transported to places where it is not needed, like the gut area, and heads to those body part where it might be necessary, like the leg muscles, so cavemen could spring into action while they run to save their lives.  Today one may not use those legs to run away from a stampede, but they could need some help staying upright when a hottie walks by from next door!

These butterflies, so as to say, are innocuous. However if these fight-or-flight feeling interfere with day to day routine, it is best to speak to a doctor. A nervous stomach at regular intervals can be a sign of anxiety (which is a serious disorder) or a gastrointestinal issue. If your stomach needs a personal barometer and butterflies often take up residence, here are some easy ways to deal with them:

  • Convince the body, that is before a meeting, there is no serious physical danger (All iz well!). Take deep breaths and relax, sit back and sip a glass of icy cold water.
  • Eat healthy meals; get plenty of good sunshine and fresh air, for the mind to produce natural feel good chemicals.
  • Chamomile, bugleweed, fennel, peppermint and willow bark calm an upset stomach and alleviates those anxious feelings.
  • Being prepared will help you recover better, if by any chance you do a mistake. Practice before a presentation.
  • Yoga asanas cleanse the nervous system and help in dealing with anxiety effectively.
  • Meditation’s benefits are manifold. Indulge in regular practice sessions.

Unless you’re eyeing for a position of a tiger jumping inside a loop of fire, job interviews aren’t really that dangerous, right? Danger might be real but the fear is not. Our body is still wired according to the Stone Age and earlier eras – hence a few switches in lifestyle, a little bit of deep breathing coupled with positive thinking will help you cope with the butterflies. It’s a simple defence mechanism and not your spider sense!


References and Further Reading

  1. The enteric nervous system and neurogastroenterology. Furness, J.B. Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience, University of Melbourne, Grattan Street, Parkville, Australia. National Review of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 2012 Mar 6;9(5):286-94.
  2. Enteric dopaminergic neurons: definition, developmental lineage, and effects of extrinsic denervation. Li, Z.S., Pham, T.D., Tamir, H., et al. Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, New York. Journal of Neuroscience 2004;24(6):1330-9.
  3. Neurotic butterflies in my stomach: the role of anxiety, anxiety sensitivity and depression in functional gastrointestinal disorders. Norton, G.R., Norton, P.J., Asmundson, G.J., et al. Department of Psychology, University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Journal of Psychosomatic Research,1999 Sep;47(3):233-40.
  4. Irritable bowel syndrome–irritable bowel or irritable mind? Marlicz, W., Zawada, I., Starzyńska, T. Pomeranian Medical University of Szczecin, Poland, Department of Gastroenterology. Polish Merkuriusz Medical, 2012 Jan;32(187):64-9.
  5. Microbes and the gut-brain axis. Bercik, P., Collins, S.M., Verdu, E.F. Farcombe Family Digestive Health Research Institute, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada. Neurogastroenterology and Motility, 2012 May;24(5):405-13. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2982.2012.01906.
  6. Anxiety: an evolutionary approach. Bateson, M., Brilot, B., Nettle, D. Reader in Ethology, Newcastle University, England. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 2011 Dec;56(12):707-15.
  7. Role of stress in functional gastrointestinal disorders. Evidence for stress-induced alterations in gastrointestinal motility and sensitivity. Mönnikes, H., Tebbe, J.J., Hildebrandt, M., et al. Department of Medicine, Division of Hepatology and Gastroenterology, Universitätsklinikum Charité, Campus Virchow-Klinikum, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany. Digestive Disease, 2001;19(3):201-11.
  8. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. Konturek, P.C., Brzozowski, T., Konturek, S.J. Department of Medicine, Thuringia Clinic Saalfeld, Teaching Hospital of the University Jena, Germany. Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 2011 Dec;62(6):591-9.