Stress and IBS – it’s not all in our head

Low Fodmap For LifeThere has been a lot of heated debate over the past week about the role that chronic anxiety has in development of Auto-Immune Disease. Over the past decade there has certainly been a lot of research into the mind-body connection which you might like to read about here and here, which proves that there is certainly a relationship between our ability to manage chronic stress and the health of our immune system.

I am fortunate in that so far I have avoided the development of AI disease (although it is in my family and genetics continues be a significant predictor), however I am intimately familiar with the very real link between stress, anxiety and my digestive system and how this plays out by triggering IBS symptoms. I am not alone in this experience of IBS as sources highlight that emotional stress is a common trigger, you can review this for yourself, here.

I also came across a great resource that talks about the vicious cycle that IBS sufferers find ourselves in: anxiety and depression can cause gastro-intestinal upsets; those with IBS frequently suffer from anxiety and depression; and suffering from IBS can make you feel more anxious and depressed! Read the full article for yourself, here.

A further research article outlines: “Although stressful experiences produce gastrointestinal symptoms in most individuals, patients with IBS are particularly susceptible, mainly due to their greater reactivity to stress.” And they go on to highlight that “stress is strongly associated with symptom onset and symptom severity.” It is also fascinating to find out that mental illness has been observed in 20% to 50% of IBS sufferers, although they are not sure which comes first. 

Another web article, here, states that “60% of IBS patients will meet the criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders” with generalized anxiety being the vast majority followed by depression.

It is clear that IBS and stress and anxiety co-exist

I have personal experiences of depression and anxiety, occurring both together and separately at different times in my life and, like most people, there are also times when stressful things occur, like deadlines, client meetings, accidents, illness in the family. I find that these experiences are heightened as I physically feel my emotional reaction in my gut, which is probably where the sayings “sick to your stomach” or “a gut reaction” comes from.

IBS can present itself as usually constipation pre-dominant (IBS-C) or diarrhea pre-dominant (IBS-D). In my case it IBS-C, however I have real empathy for those with IBS-D. With some of my experiences of short-term stress such preparing for an important meeting or about to give a presentation, I have literally found a bathroom with seconds to spare. I shudder to think of what could easily have happened. Actually, when I think about it, these experiences aren’t isolated incidents but dotted through many pages of my life. Things gets tricky when we are often overwhelmed by our confronting, painful, noisy, smelly and incredibly embarrassing digestive demands.

Sure, the low fodmap diet can help relieve the everyday symptoms of IBS, but even strictly following the diet doesn’t protect us from the insidious impact that stress and anxiety has our mental and digestive state. If we are dedicating so much time and energy into following the diet, surely it must be just as important to spend some time looking inwards and thinking out how we are managing chronic stress and anxiety in our lives and being honest with ourselves. There is no silver bullet, but awareness is a start.

It has been proven that stress management can help to ease IBS symptoms, so it seems sensible that we should come at it from two angles: following a low fodmap diet and finding our own individual ways to manage our stress. For me, exercise is my number 1 source of stress management, as the days that I’m not very active are the days that I struggle. When issues spiral, I find that talking to a counsellor is helpful.

One of the reasons that I started this blog was to provide meaningful support to those who suffer IBS as family and friends can’t fully understand our experiences and it isn’t a pleasant or socially acceptable topic of conversation.

Do you have any stories you would like to share?

1 Mulak, A. & Bonaz, B.(2004). Irritable bowel syndrome: a model of the brain-gut interactions. Medical Science Monitor 10(4): RA55-62. Retrieved from http://www.medscimonit.com/download/index/idArt/11631

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