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Stress and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

by Krissi Maarx
  • Overview

    According to the Mayo Clinic, as many as one in five American adults may have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Characterized by bloating and abdominal pain, changes in frequency or appearance of bowel movements, diarrhea or constipation and uncontrollable urgency, IBS can interfere with a person's ability to work, travel or commit to social obligations. The exact causes of IBS are unknown, but foods, hormones and stress can trigger IBS symptoms and episodes.
  • Colon Motility

    The colon, or large intestine, is responsible for nutrient absorption and moves stool by way of contractions. These contractions are partly controlled by hormones and the nerves of the autonomic nervous system. Due to this relationship of nerves between the colon and brain, emotional stress can trigger colon spasms. For people with IBS, the colon may be overly sensitive to emotional stimuli and cause abdominal cramping during times of distress. In addition to painful cramping, these muscle contractions can initiate diarrhea or cause constipation.
  • Stressors

    According to UCLA's Center for Neurovisceral Sciences, the stressors of major life events have a greater impact on IBS than mild everyday stressors, and several months of chronic stressors may precede symptom fluctuations. Major life events that can worsen symptoms include loss of a loved one, family or marital problems and moving to new city. IBS patients who have not had major life stresses within the last several months are less likely to have aggravated symptoms. Traumatic events in childhood, such as loss of a parent or sexual or physical abuse, may increase the risk of developing IBS.
  • Medication and Psychotherapy

    According to American Family Physician, diarrhea and abdominal pain may lessen with low doses of tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline. This treatment benefits an average of one in three patients but may cause intolerable side effects, such as constipation. Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, may help those who have IBS and anxiety disorders; however, they are not the first choice of treatment because of their side effects and addictive qualities. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help IBS patients reduce diarrhea and abdominal pain by assisting with stress management.
  • Stress Management

    Stress management techniques can help people reduce their IBS symptoms and can be used at home or with a therapist. Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation promote physical control of the body's stress response, while meditation and guided imagery can produce relaxation through mental imagery. In addition to these relaxation techniques, yoga, Tai Chi and regular exercise can reduce mental and physical stress.
  • Considerations

    Celiac disease, lactose intolerance and ulcerative colitis are a few conditions that may feel similar to IBS; please see a physician if you have symptoms of IBS. While stress reduction may improve this condition, an elimination diet can help you identify and eliminate any foods from your diet that trigger episodes of IBS.

    References & Resources