Stress, the Immune System and IBS

Many IBS sufferers notice that their symptoms are worse or more common during stressful or emotional events, such as arguments, travel, social events, or following changes in your daily routine.

Yet, current research indicates that stress can aggravate the symptoms, but that it doesn’t cause them or IBS.

The symptoms associated with IBS can cause a person to feel depressed and anxious. Similarly, those with IBS frequently suffer from depression and anxiety, which actually lead to a worsening of their IBS symptoms.

Stress is feeling mentally or emotionally tense, overwhelmed, anxious, angry, or troubled. Stress can trigger muscle spasms in the colon of people with IBS. The colon is connected to the brain by many nerves. The colon, like the heart and the lungs, is partly controlled and regulated by the autonomic nervous system, which responds to stress.

Nerves control contractions of the colon. During times of stress, abdominal discomfort can result. For example, people often experience abdominal cramps or “butterflies” in their stomachs when they are nervous or upset. For people with IBS, the colon can become overly responsive during even times of slight stress or conflict. The discomfort caused by the IBS symptoms in the colon can cause additional stress, which can cause more cramping and discomfort.

So, a feedback loop can be created, where the stress makes the mind more aware of the discomfort in the colon, causing more stress, which triggers worse symptoms in the colon.
Some research evidence indicates that IBS may be affected by the immune system, which helps keep the body healthy by fighting infection. Our immune systems are also affected by stress.

For these reasons, the following stress management techniques are crucial in the treatment of the symptoms of IBS:

  • Stress reduction (relaxation) training and relaxation therapies such as meditation
  • Counseling and support to work through your problems before things escalate.
  • Regular exercise, such as walking and yoga.
  • Reducing the stressful situations in your life.
  • Adequate sleep.
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