Stress and IBS

At first glance of the symptoms of IBS such as bloating, gas, abdominal cramps, and constipation and/or diarrhea, it may seem like this is merely a digestive condition that can be corrected by diet. From my own personal journey with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, I know that even if I follow the low FODMAP diet to a “T” and drink plenty of water, I can still have flare-ups if I am feeling anxious or stressed. So, why is this and what can you do about your stress to stop IBS flare-ups?

What is stress?

Stress is the way the body responds to situations and demands. Every day we all face some kinds of stress such as work demands, a long list of errands to run, family and loved ones to care for, getting caught up in traffic, to name a few. These daily stresses may be interwined every now and then with more intense stress such as job loss, loss of a loved one, financial stress, or unexpected accidents or illness.

Therefore, since we cannot get away from stress, we have to learn to manage it. Unfortunately, many of us are not very good at managing stress from the looks of statistics. Stress levels reported by Americans keeps rising each year, and with that heart disease, of which stress is a risk factor, is still the leading cause of death in the country. A little bit of stress can be good motivation to perform well such as in interviews or performances, but chronic stress can increase risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

Stress and IBS

Research has found that IBS is a stress-sensitive disorder. It makes sense when you consider the theory of the brain-gut axis that has found psychological conditions and stressors such as anxiety and depression can impact intestinal sensitivity, motility, secretion, and permeability. These factors can affect the efficiency of digestion and excretion of waste since the colon is in part controlled by the nervous system. In other words, when you get stressed, especially if you have IBS, you may not tolerate certain foods well, you may have constipation or diarrhea, and you may also have bloating, gas, or fluid retention. Stress can aggravate symptoms of IBS. In fact, studies have even shown that IBS may be caused by past trauma or high stress in the previous years before diagnosis.

How to Deal with Stress When You Have IBS

Whether you have IBS or not, it is important to have a stress management plan in place to help keep your heart and mind healthy. However, for those with IBS, certain strategies may help to reduce stress and in turn reduce flare-ups.

  • Counseling: If you are not sure how to manage your stress, or if you feel like you are running out of ideas to try to manage your stress, talking with a counselor can help you sort through your stressors and learn new techniques to deal with your life stressors.
  • Acupuncture: Personally, I have found acupuncture to be very helpful in managing my stress and helping relieve the constipation related to my IBS-C. Call before you make an appointment to make sure the acupuncturist you choose specializes in IBS and digestive disorders. I have found that if they have treated many patients with IBS in the past, then your treatments will be more effective in helping you control your symptoms. Also, call to make sure your insurance is in network with your insurance unless you do not mind paying out pf pocket.
  • Relaxation exercises: Yoga, meditation, tai chi, progressive relaxation of the muscles, relaxation breathing, and mindfulness training are all ways to help you train your brain and body to relax. Try out a few and choose the one that is best fitting and effective for you.
  • Get enough sleep and downtime: Make sure you get to sleep at a decent hour if you can and get at least 7 hours of sleep a night. This is because studies are starting to show the connection between the circadian rhythm and digestive conditions such as IBS. Staying up late, late night snacking, or not getting enough rest can throw your circadian rhythm off and in turn negatively affect digestion.

Not every strategy works for everyone, so just keep trying new things to se what works best for yo in helping you manage your stress and symptoms. Also, it is good to always have on hand products such as Natural Ginger Tummydrops and LemonAID digestive drink to help settle your sensitive stomach when IBS symptoms do arise.


Written by Staci Gulbin, MS, RD a Board-certified dietitian.

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