November is National Stress Awareness Month in the UK. Not only does stress affect our psychological well-being, it can also wreak havoc when you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome. We feel stressed whenever we decide something is a threat. This sets off a unique mind and body response which arms our muscles with oxygenated blood, clears our focus in the moment and prepares us to fight or flee. Unfortunately, when this stress response continues for a long period of time, it’s inflammatory nature can affect our health.
What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
IBS is the most common functional gastrointestinal condition seen by GPs and the disease most commonly diagnosed by gastroenterologists. Functional diseases are ones where your digestion is simply not right but when examined, the structure of your digestive system seems normal. 1:4 people in the UK are likely to have IBS and it affects twice as many women as men.
How Can You Tell If You Have IBS?
IBS is typically classified as abdominal pain accompanied by a change in bowel habit in the absence of evidence of disease. It is often a diagnosis by exclusion. Commonly reported symptoms include: abdominal bloating, gas, pain that is often relieved by defecation, headache, nausea, heartburn, tiredness, diarrhoea or constipation (or a mixture of both).
Stress has a large role to play in IBS as it can worsen the intensity or frequency of your IBS symptoms.
Stress Can Make Your IBS Symptoms Worse
Stress primarily affects the symptoms related to how often you go to the loo and what happens when you are there. It can also affect the amount of pain you are experiencing in an acute IBS flare up.
You have a Brain-Gut Axis which links your thoughts and feelings with responses in your gut. This can cause inflammation or change your transit time. The changes either increase or decrease the amount of time digested food takes to pass through your colon. Increased transit time reduces the amount of time water and valuable nutrients can be removed from your digested food. You’ll know this is happening because you have diarrhoea. Reduced transit time gives the body more time to remove water from your digested food. As a result, things slow down and get bunged up. You’ll know this is happening because you are constipated. Stress can also alter your unique gut flora population and the emotional response to stress can increase or decrease transit time.
Visceral Hypersensitivity is a term researchers use to describe what happens when you are more aware of changes within your intestine. This could be due to inflammation, a localised immune response near nerve endings or increased serotonin levels.
Sensitivity and reaction to triggers increases in the gut when we are stressed, partly due to the release of neurochemicals such as Corticotropin Releasing Factor.
Reducing Stress Can Improve Your IBS
One of the biggest, long-term changes I notice in my IBS clinic is when people are able to reduce their stress. Symptoms magically reduce or disappear. I know this is a “catch-22” because there are few things more stressful than being in the middle of an intense IBS attack.
One way of reducing your stress is to introduce formal relaxation. Formal relaxation means scheduling time (and that time is non-negotiable) to do something relaxing. It needs to be something you personally do find relaxing, not something you have read is supposed to be relaxing that you really don’t enjoy doing. The key here, is how you feel about it.
So, go on. Do it now. Schedule something relaxing in your calendar and do it this week.