The Impact of Stress on IBS

Katie Regan, MBA, RDN

One of the first things that you and your healthcare provider will talk about in regard to your IBS is stress. Stress is a factor that can damage many aspects of your health including exacerbating GI symptoms for IBS patients. When under greater stress, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation can become more aggravated. 

First and foremost, don’t make the mistake of thinking that stress in and of itself can cause IBS.  This is not the case. However, the more stress that you put your body under, the less capable your body is of producing a healthy reaction. 

Remember that we don’t know what actually causes IBS. In effect, all we can do is to treat the symptoms that can come from it. A great start to managing IBS is to control stress.

Why Stress Hurts

It is clear why stress amplifies your IBS. For a healthy person in an ideal situation, stress is controlled by the body. Although, under stress, the body turns on a pain inhibition system to help the body cope with the additional strain. 

But, what has been found in patients with IBS is that this hypersensitivity doesn’t go away. Your body doesn’t turn on the right pain inhibition system and you feel the muscles of your gut hurting. 

For example, it has been a long and stressful day; you are looking forward to a good meal and sleep.  If you are experiencing prolonged or repeated episodes of stress, you won’t find it so easy to relax.  Instead, you go home and eat a meal.  No matter if you eat during your stressful event or after, you will have that awful ache in your abdomen that comes with IBS. 

It Doesn’t Have To Be Food

Food isn’t the only trigger for your IBS symptoms.  Many studies have confirmed that IBS can be triggered by many things - for example, while experiencing a normal emotional response to a situation, the mind is not the only thing affected. Rather, studies show that there is a physical reaction as well.

If you are afraid, nervous or sad, your body reacts physically as well as emotionally.  Your heart starts to race. Your hands are sweaty. The emotions may even trickle down to your gut, an ache within your stomach. 

In IBS patients, those gut-specific symptoms amplify. The body reacts to stressful situations and emotional feelings. Stress and emotions strangle the abdominal walls – causing pain in the gut.  This is where your IBS symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea.

In these examples, you can see that no matter what the stressful situation, it plays a role in making your symptoms far from ordinary.  In effect, your IBS is exacerbated by these conditions.

For that reason, avoiding stressful situations can be quite helpful at reducing the number of painful IBS episodes occurring within your body. 

It’s wonderful to think about completely avoiding stressful events – but that’s unlikely. Instead, you’ll want to learn how to manage your stress.

The question is now, how can you do this?

Removing Stress

There is no doubt that removing stress from your lifestyle is going to be challenging.  And, there is no doubt that each of us will face stressful situations no matter what we do to avoid them.  But, it isn’t all about avoiding those situations.

In many ways, doing things that will relieve your stress will help your IBS to find less of a reason to flare up. Like FODMAP stacking, stress stacking is what causes IBS reactions. One or two stressful situations shouldn’t cause a catastrophic reaction from your gut. Minimizing stress will help reduce the stress stacking in your body.

Here are some of the best ways for you to work on relieving stress in your life.

Exercise:  Believe it or not, your body can relax and find stress relief in exercise.  Exercise is a great way for you to reduce the stress in your body. Getting into an exercise routine can help you systematically lower your IBS reactions. Start small, add in walks each day after dinner. Sign up for exercise classes – either online or through your local gym. Swimming is another great low impact exercise that allows you to fully remove yourself from your daily stress. Think about it, you can’t even look at your work emails while you’re in the water! Getting in physical activity does much more than just help you to stay fit.  It also helps to stimulate the brain which in turn helps your body to reduce stress loads.

Meditation:  For some, mediation is a great way to find relief from stress.  Emphasizing the good instead of focusing on the negative is a perfect way to find relief from stressful events.  If you don’t feel that mediation is right for you, try yoga.  This will combine both meditation and exercise to provide ideal stress relief to your body and to your mind.

Do Something Fun:  Even when things are really stressful, your mind needs to focus on other things that are beneficial.  If you can get out with your friends for a night of having fun, that will help to decompress. Maybe you’re more of an introvert, pick up a good book and escape from your phone for an hour or so. Everyone needs to find things to do that take their mind off of the stress they are under.

Get Enough Sleep:  One of the most powerful stress-relief strategies is just getting enough sleep. Sleep is not an option but a requirement for good health. By getting enough sleep, you’re allowing your body to rest and recoup from the ongoing stress in your life. 

Reducing stress is a great way to help you to manage/avoid IBS symptoms.  There is little doubt that having the right physical and emotional condition will allow you to feel better and to actually get through the day without having the symptoms of IBS.

Use these methods to help you to reduce stress loads.  Keep in mind that there are plenty of other ways that you can reduce the stresses of your body too.  You just need to maintain a healthy living environment.  If you do not take the time to reduce and avoid stress in your daily life, IBS will be a constant factor.

Remember that stress is not the only thing that you need to think about.  Pair stress reduction with other necessary IBS management tactics and you will quickly see the rewards.

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