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Alyssa Simpson RD, CDE, CLT
Alyssa Simpson

RD, CDE, CLT​

Is Stress Making Your IBS Symptoms Worse? How Stress Aggravates IBS

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How Stress Aggravates IBS

When you think of IBS, you probably think of the symptoms:

? Belly pain and cramping

? Constipation, diarrhea, or both

? Gas and bloating

? Feeling like your bowel movements are never quite completed

? Mucus in your stools

When patients come to me with an IBS diagnosis, they just want to feel better. They want their digestive issues to go away. They’re tired of planning their lives around the bathroom and being afraid to eat.

Many people who come to me have already exhausted the possibilities of the medications that mask their symptoms. But they’re ready to solve their problem, not just put on another band-aid.

They come to me because I take a functional approach to IBS. Of course, I want my patients to feel better. But just covering up symptoms isn’t going to create long-term health. So instead of masking symptoms, I look at the function of the entire body and how everything is working together.

Our bodies strive for a state of balance, called homeostasis. And when we are affected by conditions like IBS, it’s our body’s way of telling us that something is out of balance. So with a functional approach, we look at that state of imbalance and see what needs to happen to correct it.

So in my practice, I look at many different areas of my patients’ health and lifestyle. Our aim is to answer the following questions in order to get to the bottom of what’s going on:

❔ How and when do these symptoms show up in daily life?

❔ Are there specific foods that trigger the symptoms (or make them worse)?

❔ What other things are going on in the body that contribute to the problem?

❔ How are these symptoms interfering with life?

And most importantly…

❔ What is the root cause of the symptoms?

Stress and IBS

As we dig into their history and IBS symptoms, my patients are often surprised at the emphasis I put on stress and mental concerns like anxiety and depression. But science has shown us that there is a close connection between mental health and IBS. In fact, it’s estimated that 40 to 60 percent of IBS patients also struggle with a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression.1

A review of studies conducted in 2014 showed evidence that stress may be a contributing factor to the development — or worsening — of IBS symptoms.2

Stress can actually trigger the onset of IBS. If you’ve experienced a traumatic event like early childhood trauma, the death of a loved one or even anxiety or depression, your course of IBS may have been set into motion.

And if you already have IBS and experience a traumatic event like a breakup or the loss of a close family member, you may see your IBS symptoms ramp up.

The Gut-Brain Connection

The IBS and stress connection doesn’t stop there. Your gastrointestinal tract (gut) and your brain are interconnected. Both your gut and your brain are filled with neurons, and they communicate through nerves.

The vagus nerve, one of the largest nerves in the body, extends from your brain all the way down to your gut. And this nerve helps your brain and digestive system to communicate. One study indicated that people with IBS have reduced tone in this important nerve so it doesn’t work as effectively.3

The “second brain” consists of the nervous system components found in your gut. This is known as your enteric nervous system or ENS. Your ENS communicates with your brain for a variety of functions, including digestion. If you’d like to learn more about the gut-brain connection, check out this article.

What happens to your gut when you’re stressed?

Your colon is controlled by your nervous system. So if you feel anxious, depressed, or stressed, it can affect your IBS symptoms. But this works in reverse too. You may struggle with mood disorders as a result of your IBS as well.

When you experience stress, it affects the interactions between your gut and your brain. And this can lead to (or worsen) your IBS. And on the flip side, IBS can cause changes in the balance between your brain and your gut as well.

Have you noticed that stress and anxiety trigger your IBS symptoms? Many of my patients can pinpoint a stressful time in their life that triggered the onset of their symptoms. They expected the symptoms to go away once life calmed down, but they didn’t.

Stress can also aggravate IBS symptoms. It’s not uncommon for someone to come to me with stories about how a stressful episode results in a mad dash to the bathroom.

If you narrowly miss a car accident or get nervous about a work presentation, you might feel the all-to-familiar stomach-churning and diarrhea that is so common in IBS patients. This is the result of overactivity in your gut caused by stress.

Or maybe for you, stress locks everything up and you experience gas, pain, and constipation. This happens when the signals between the brain and the gut are underactive, which can also happen with IBS.

We are living in trying times. And we are all stressed right now. But we’ve become somewhat accustomed to it. I often have a patient tell me they don’t feel like they’re stressed. Nothing unusual is going on.

But the global crises, political divisions, and social challenges of the past 2 years have added to our collective stress in a way we may not all recognize. And that’s without including the personal stresses involved in everyday living.

You may not feel stressed. This may feel normal now. But even if we’ve adapted emotionally, all this stress is having a chronic, cumulative effect on our bodies.

IBS symptoms are also closely tied to your microbiome — also known as your gut bacteria or gut flora. Stress can cause an imbalance in this bacterial world, creating dysbiosis. In fact, the onset of your IBS may be related to this stress-induced bacterial imbalance. If you’d like to learn more about the relationship between stress and your microbiome, read this article.

When you experience stress, your digestive system responds — especially if it is already impaired by a condition like IBS. You may experience:

? A reduction in the amount of blood flowing to the intestines.

? Leaky gut. This is when the walls of your intestines become permeable and allow food molecules to escape into your bloodstream. This can cause complications like an autoimmune disease.

? Overactive immune system. Stress can cause your body to release too much of the hormone corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). This hormone is connected to your gut bacteria. But too much can trigger an exaggerated immune response, which can cause allergic responses to otherwise healthy food.

? Increased inflammation. When your immune system is activated, you can develop inflammation (swelling) throughout your body — otherwise known as chronic inflammation.

It’s not your imagination

Stress and IBS are closely connected. Your IBS symptoms may often be tied to how you feel. Stay tuned for the next couple of weeks. We’ll be digging into the practicals: what you need to know about stress, and how to reduce it!

If you’re ready to work with a highly qualified and experienced practitioner to get your IBS symptoms under control by bringing your body back into balance, click the link below.

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