IBS and stress are conditions that can significantly affect our quality of life, work and harmony.

 

We are aware that stress can cause us to have physical symptoms, including bowel symptoms. It can also exacerbate some medical conditions, including IBS. The consequences of physical illness and pain can add on to the stress of life. Physical illness can affect our ability to function, sleep and undertake activities, including work, with potential loss of earnings and consequently financial stress. Some bowel related disorders, like IBS, can also cause discomfort during intercourse and have an impact on intimate relationships. Stress does not cause IBS. However, because of the connection between the brain and the gut, stress can worsen or trigger IBS symptoms.

 

STRESS

Stress is not necessarily a ‘bad’ thing. Without the ability to feel stress, the human race wouldn’t have survived. Our cavemen ancestors relied on the onset of stress to alert them to a potential danger, such as a sabre-toothed tiger or a lion.

Stress is primarily a physical response to any real or perceived disturbance of our body’s homeostasis, or our state of harmony or balance. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol to prepare the body for physical action. There is a lot of information about stress out there, so please explore them. The purpose of this blog is to explain how stress and IBS are inter-related and how you can get back some control. 

 

IBS

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a condition that effects the digestive system, also known as the gastrointestinal system or gut. IBS is one of the most common gut disorders, with up to 1 in 5 people suffering from it at some point in their life. It affects males and females, adults, and children. It is not a psychological disorder but has been closely linked with both stress and anxiety. Even people who don’t experience IBS can find themselves needing to go to the toilet when they are nervous, anxious or experiencing stress.  I know I did! The exact cause for this condition is unknown but research is ongoing.

 

Abdominal pain is the key symptom of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and is associated with a change in bowel habits. This change in bowel habits may be diarrhoea and/or constipation. The pain is often relieved by having a bowel movement and can at times be worsened after eating.

 

Individuals with IBS may either have mostly diarrhoea (IBSD), mostly constipation (IBSC), or a mixed pattern of both diarrhoea and constipation (IBSM). In addition, the main bowel habit can vary over time. For example, some people that suffer mainly from constipation (or diarrhoea) may later experience a change to mixed type IBS.  

 

Symptoms can change over time and can wax and wane. There can be periods when symptoms flare up as well as periods of remission when they diminish or disappear, and some may experience a few weeks or even a few months of good health before the symptoms return.

 

Other common symptoms of IBS include bloating (a sensation of fullness in the belly), wind (increased flatulence), urgency (the need to use the toilet in a hurry), passage of mucus (white or yellow liquid) in the stool, and the sensation of incompletely passing stools.

 

It can also be affected by the cyclical hormonal changes in women. I do recollect that in my gynaecology clinic, a third to almost half of ladies referred with abdominal or pelvic pain, had a bowel related issue, and a large proportion of these had an element of IBS. Some of these women had anxieties and a fear of something sinister going on, and in some cases, concerns about its effect on their fertility. Just explaining what IBS really is to them reduces their anxiety and stress, and therefore, improves their symptoms.

 

PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS AND IBS

Psychological factors are not a primary cause of IBS. Stressful events like losing a job or becoming   involved in an argument are events that can cause a transient change in bowel habits and even abdominal pain for most people. 

Not all people with IBS symptoms have symptoms of psychological distress. Some people with IBS report symptoms such as depressed mood or anxiety, but this is more common in those with severe symptoms.  Where present, these symptoms may influence how a person seeks to manage and deal with IBS. 

Emotional distress may be associated with a worsening of IBS symptoms. Conversely, IBS symptoms may induce an appropriate. but unwanted, anticipatory anxiety due to the severity, unpredictability, and associated consequences of having an “attack.” 

Unresolved emotional issues that may have arisen in childhood or adulthood, if present, should also be considered. Addressing these issues with an empathetic doctor, who can refer the person for counselling, would be important to improve IBS symptoms and daily function in these individuals.

Learn more about Psychological factors and IBS

 

DIAGNOSIS

Unfortunately there isn’t a test to diagnose IBS. Diagnosis is based on careful history taking and examination. The typical features of IBS are generally recognizable by a General Practitioner (GP) or physician. The most important first step is to confidently recognize the diagnosis of IBS and remove the suspicion of other diseases by a few investigations, where indicated.  

 

SO, WHAT CAN YOU DO?

Because we do not know what causes it, there is presently no cure for IBS. However, it can be managed.

Educate yourself.

Education is pivotal in managing IBS. Try to be proactive in your own health care. Obtain educational materials from your doctor, NHS website  and organizations such as IFFGD, to learn more about IBS and how to best manage your symptoms. 

With knowledge and understanding of what IBS is, and what things trigger it in you, you can start to manage it by changes in your lifestyle and diet. That is a journey of listening to your body, understanding how your own body works and maybe keeping a food diary. Using all that information, you and your doctor can formulate a plan to help you work with your body instead of against it.  

There are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to IBS.  Below are some general guidelines to consider. See what works for you.

DO

  • cook homemade meals using fresh ingredients when you can
  • try to identify factors that may make your symptoms worse. Keep a daily diary for at least a week or two. Note what you eat and any symptoms you get – try to avoid things that trigger your IBS
  • try to find ways to relax
  • get plenty of exercise
  • try probiotics for a month to see if they help. 

For further information see also Probiotics and Antibiotics

Probiotics help with the overall health of your digestive system. If you would like to try one, why not try Forever Active Pro-B.

 

DON’T

  • do not delay or skip meals
  • do not eat too quickly
  • do not eat lots of fatty, spicy or processed foods
  • do not eat more than 3 portions of fresh fruit a day (a portion is 80g)
  • do not drink more than 3 cups of tea or coffee a day
  • do not drink lots of alcohol or fizzy drinks

 

Consider

  • non-drug treatment options to help decrease symptoms. 
  • look for and address any sources of stress in your life that may impact your symptoms.
  • use medicines to relieve or avoid the onset of symptoms. Talk to your doctor to discuss which medicine may be right for your symptoms and circumstances.

 

In summary, IBS and stress are inter-related conditions and both can be managed with adequate education, lifestyle changes and by working together with your doctor to design and apply a plan to manage your particular symptoms and improve your quality of life.

 

I hope that you have found this helpful.  As always, I would love to hear your comments. 

 

If you’d like to explore non-drug, natural treatments to help reduce your symptoms and support your gut health or you’d like to know how I can help you look for and address sources of stress that may be impacting your symptoms, then please feel free to get in touch. We can have a free chat to start you on the journey to a full and enriched life. 

 

Sources/Useful sites: 

https://aboutibs.org/what-is-ibs/

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs/

https://www.webmd.com/ibs/guide/stress-anxiety-ibs