The Body-Mind Connection: 5 Factors Linking IBS and Stress


You are out on a date with your dream girl in one of the best steak restaurants in town. Then you invite her for coffee after dinner and everything seems to be going perfectly. All of a sudden, you have a Ben Stiller in Along Came Polly moment – you need to do number two. It turns out you had too much steak and it has taken its toll on your stomach.

This could be something you can laugh about after a few days, but for 25 to 45 million Americans, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is definitely no laughing matter. In fact, living with IBS is a constant struggle for many people who have to develop the discipline to stop their uncomfortable and disruptive symptoms from knocking at their doors.

Understanding the What, How and Why of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome is a long-term condition affecting the colon, or large intestine. The symptoms of IBS vary from person-to-person, although the most common are:

  • Abdominal Pain
  • Stomach Cramping
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Alternating Bouts with Diarrhea or Constipation
  • Mucus in the Stool
  • Gas

IBS does not pose a threat to your health; however, these symptoms could also indicate a more serious condition, such as colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.

If you constantly experience one or more of the mentioned symptoms, then make sure to see a doctor to seek medical help. There are no specific tests to check if you have irritable bowel syndrome. Your doctor will ask you if you have experienced abdominal pain or discomfort, bloating, and changes in bowel habits for at least six months. They will also ask you whether you feel relieved from abdominal pain or discomfort after passing stools.

Your doctor will also require you to undergo some blood tests to rule out any other conditions with similar symptoms, such as coeliac disease or a stomach infection. You might also need to submit a stool specimen to check the presence of calprotectin, a type of substance produced by the gut when it is inflamed. This also confirms inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD.

alcoholYou might be wondering what causes IBS. The truth is that the exact cause of IBS is still unknown. There are variety of factors, which could contribute to IBS. They include:

  • Gastrointestinal Nervous System Abnormalities
  • Increased Gut Sensitivity
  • Poor Coordinated Signals Between Brain and Intestines
  • Strong or Weak Intestinal Contractions
  • Poor Food Digestion
  • Fatty Foods and Spices
  • Chocolate
  • Alcohol
  • Carbonated Beverages
  • Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth

Aside from these, one of the most common risk factors linked to irritable bowel syndrome is stress. Stress is the physical, emotional, or mental factors causing bodily or mental tension. It may seem harmless, but stress can cause several psychological and medical conditions, like depression, high blood pressure, anxiety and diabetes.

According to gastroenterologists, stress is also a recognizable factor among IBS patients. Keep in mind that stress doesn’t cause IBS; however, it could aggravate the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. The questions are, how does stress contribute to IBS, and what are the ways to reduce it?

Here are five facts you need to know about the link between IBS and stress.

5 Factors Linking IBS and Stress

1. The Stress Response and Its Effects on Your Gut

brainYou already know that your brain releases cortisol, the stress hormone, when you are under challenging situations. This hormone could mess up your body and affect the way it functions, including increased trips to the bathroom.

To understand the link between stress and IBS, keep in mind that your stress response involves a network of interacting brain regions, as they receive information from in or out of the body. Stress triggers two pathways from these brain regions:

  • Pituitary-Adrenal Axis – It increases circulating hormones involved in regulating the body’s response to stress. This includes cortisol.
  • Automatic Nervous System – It regulates involuntary bodily functions like heart rate and bowel function.

Both pathways, collectively called the brain-gut axis, affect the function of the gut through a system of nerves located within the bowel walls. This explains why stomach pain is among the symptoms caused by stress, which could worsen even further if you have IBS.

2. The Role of Corticotropin-Releasing Factor in IBS

Experts may not have a readily available solution for every condition. One thing is for sure: they are continuously working to discover something new that could contribute to their efforts to find treatments for this troubling medical condition.

gutOne of the most recent discoveries is the family of peptides or small proteins made of amino acids, which includes corticotropin-releasing factor or CRF, urocortin 1, urocortin 2, and urocortin 3. These peptides act as messengers to interact with CRF receptors to:

  • Receive messages.
  • Induce physiological response in the body.

The CRF peptides and receptors are in the gut and brain, specifically in the brain regions linked with emotional behavior and digestive function. When you are under stress, CRF and urocortin 1 activates the CRF receptors, which play a key role in gut responses to stress. This leads to:

  • Abdominal Pain
  • Anxiety-Like Behavior
  • Colon Secretions
  • Muscle Contractions or Motility

As a result, you will experience watery stools or diarrhea and increased permeability within the bowel lining.

3. Stress and Its Relationship to Your Autonomic Nervous System

nervous systemThe autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system responsible for controlling body functions, such as breathing and digestive processes. It is also a primary pathway involved in brain-gut communication, which plays a crucial role in functional bowel disorders.

No matter how hard you try, stress will find a way to disturb proper body function, including autonomic nervous system activities. It turns out that experts and researchers link autonomic disturbance and dysfunction with various functional bowel disorders involving the gut. This means a higher possibility that you will experience the symptoms of IBS.

4. Stress and IBS: A Lethal Combination Against the Colon

Also called the large intestine, the colon is the coiled, tube-like organ responsible for removing water from digested food. At the same time, this organ transports the remaining materials in the form of stools.

How can you relate stress and the colon in conjunction with the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome?

The colon contains a supply of nerves connected to the brain. These nerves control the colon’s normal rhythmic contractions. When you are under stress, there is a tendency to cause abdominal discomfort and over-stimulate colon spasms, hence the term, “butterflies in the stomach.”

large intestineThe over-stimulation of the colon could be more pronounced if you have irritable bowel syndrome, regardless of the severity of your stress. You will experience an increase in muscle contractions or motility, and pain sensitivity. This makes the bowel lining more permeable, thereby easier for substances to pass through, as well as allowing the passage of bacteria within the intestine to the bowel wall.

That’s not all. Peptides like CRF and urocortin 1 act directly within the colon to stimulate motor activity and secretion. They also cause increased water and mucus secretion, and promote responses, such as bowel movements, colonic motility, and bacteria – a condition IBS sufferers are far too familiar with.

It doesn’t end there. According to several animal studies, increased anxiousness could lead to painful colon stimulation and activated CRF mechanisms. For IBS patients, you may experience increased sensitivity in abdominal pain, tension and gut reactivity.

5. How Stress Affects Your Immune System and Triggers IBS

The immune system is your body’s defense against infectious organisms, bacteria and other bodily invaders. Once your immune system is down, it becomes even more challenging for your body to maintain your health and stop infectious organisms from taking over your body.

bacteriaThere are several factors affecting the immune system in a negative way. This includes stress. This is also the reason why you are more prone to common colds and coughs if you are always under stressful situations. Aside from this, stress could trigger the symptoms of IBS, due to a weakened immune system.

According to an article published in the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility, IBS patients showed evidence of abnormal systemic immune responses. Aside from this, CRF stimulates mast cells, a type of immune cells that increase permeability, pain response and bacterial uptake from the colon to the colonic tissue. This leads to muscle contractions in the colon and a sharp increase in pain.

Anti-Stress Tips to Kiss Your IBS Goodbye

Given the effects of stress and its ability to worsen the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, the question now is this: Is there anything you can do about it? The answer is a resounding yes.

Stress may be inevitable, but there are ways to decrease it. There are also effective methods to deal with it better, too. Here are some stress management techniques you can do to help you get your health and life back, despite having IBS:exercise

  • Deep Breathing Exercises – One of the simplest ways to remove stress is by breathing deeply. Deep breathing slows down your heart rate and helps you relax and calm your mind, thereby minimizing stomach cramping. Breathe in and out slowly and deeply until you get a relaxing feeling.
  • Meditation – Aside from deep breathing, meditation allows you to relax and deal with your emotions. Take a few minutes of your time every day to sit quietly and deal with whatever is on your mind. You can also try visualization techniques, listen to soothing music, or recite a mantra to help you find your calm and mental focus.
  • Exercise – Another simple way to combat stress is to get moving. Exercise and other physical activities are effective in relaxing your body and helping you de-stress. Choose an activity you enjoy doing, like walking, running, swimming, playing sports or even dancing.
  • Reward Yourself – Stress often comes from your job, responsibilities at home, kids, or even financial issues. If you are able to resolve at least one, then don’t hesitate to reward yourself. Watch a movie, read a book, treat yourself to a fancy coffee, or buy a new shade of lipstick. Treating yourself once in a while makes you feel better and reduces your stress levels.
  • Consider Alternative Medicines – Instead of going for pills, alternative treatments like acupuncture and massage could help get rid of stress and at the same time, manage the symptoms of IBS. You will start to feel better afterwards.
  • Watch Out for IBS Triggers – There are certain foods, like coffee and chocolate, which could over-stimulate the gut and trigger IBS symptoms. Keep a food diary and take note of your food triggers. Try to avoid these foods to minimize trips to the bathroom.

  • Talk About IBS – Most people with IBS feel embarrassed to talk about the disorder, which could add to their stress and anxiety. Instead of keeping your condition to yourself and make your friends wonder what’s taking you so long in the bathroom, be honest and talk about it openly. Explain your condition and surely, the people around you will understand.
  • Try Support Groups – If you don’t feel confident talking about IBS with your peers, then there are support groups for people with IBS who will be helpful and more understanding of the condition. Don’t hesitate to join IBS support groups near you since it also helps lessen stress levels by arming you with new tools to manage it.
  • Talk to a Therapist – If you are not into big groups, then you can also talk to a therapist to help you manage your stress levels. Therapists use cognitive-behavioral therapy or hypnotherapy to minimize stress and at the same time, manage IBS symptoms.

Here are some of the many ways to help you deal with both stress and IBS. While every person is different, the important thing is to find something that will work for you to help you relax.

Important Factors to Remember

Fact: stress is inevitable, but managing it boils down to your attitudes towards stressful situations, and how you want to combat stress and stop it from triggering the troubling symptoms of IBS.

Keep in mind that IBS is a lifelong condition. Still, this doesn’t mean that there is nothing you can do about it. Remember the five situations describing how stress could worsen the symptoms of IBS. Take note of the anti-stress tips to help you manage your condition. Try one today, and you may see a big difference in how you feel.


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