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Stress and Digestion

April is IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) Awareness Month. If you don't know what IBS is or what it's like, then consider yourself lucky. Between 25 and 45 million people in the United States (10 to 15% of the population) are affected.

  • The exact cause of IBS is not known. Symptoms may result from a disturbance in the way the gut, brain, and nervous system interact. This can cause changes in normal bowel movement and sensation.
  • Stress does not cause IBS. However, because of the connection between the brain and the gut, stress can worsen or trigger symptoms.

This last statement about stress triggering or worsening symptoms is a reality for many people. In fact, 35-70% of the population will experience a GI disorder at some point in life, women more often than men. The relationship between stress and digestive health issues is bidirectional: stress can trigger symptoms and GI distress can lead to stress.

The "second brain" and how it responds to stress

The enteric nervous system regulates digestion and is part of the autonomic nervous system which triggers the "fight-or-flight response and also calms the body down after a stressful event.

When the body is under stress and the "fight-or-flight" response is activated, digestion slows or even stops so the body can divert all its energy to the perceived threat. This also occurs during less severe events like public speaking. Chronic disruptions in digestion will lead to abdominal pain and other symptoms such as constipation, bloating, diarrhea, etc. If you experience chronic stress, seek stress relief measures immediately!

Stress Relief Therapies for Persistent GI Distress

There is no cure for IBS but there are several therapies suggested to help one cope with these disorders of the gut.

  1. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Psychotherapy to help people better manage stress and anxiety by changing their counterproductive thoughts and behavior and learn coping skills.
  2. Relaxation therapy. A number of techniques including progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and restful music. It's most effective when combined with CBT.
  3. Gut-directed hypnotherapy. This type of treatment is often performed in highly specialized research centers.

IBS can only be diagnosed by a medical professional so see your health care provider for more information.





International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders

Harvard Health Publications: Stress and the sensitive gut