People who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) often wonder whether there is any connection between stress, anxiety, and gut health. It is easy to see why this is such a common question, as stress and IBS seem to go hand-in-hand, as a reported 60% of IBS patients also suffer from anxiety. Yet, this may raise a lot of questions for people with IBS about the correlation between anxiety and IBS. Ultimately, there are no definitive answers to these questions, nor is there a cure for IBS. However, gaining a better understanding of the connection between the health of the brain and the gut can help IBS sufferers to better manage their symptoms. To help you better understand and manage your IBS, keep reading for an in-depth look at what Irritable Bowel Syndrome is and how it is connected to anxiety.
What Is IBS?
For those who are unfamiliar with it, irritable bowel syndrome is a common disorder affecting the gastrointestinal tract that is characterized by belly pain and altered stool habits – some people have diarrhea, some have constipation and some have both. IBS can cause frequent cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea. This is a chronic condition that must be managed long-term, however, it doesn’t cause permanent damage to the intestines, nor does it increase the risk for serious diseases such as cancer. Most cases are mild and can be managed with diet, stress management, exercise, and lifestyle changes. Some people have severe symptoms that will need to be treated with prescription medications.
Is There a Connection Between Stress and IBS?
It is well-documented that there is a significant connection between the brain and the gut, which is why people with IBS often notice an increase in symptoms when they are feeling particularly stressed or anxious. When we are stressed, this can activate the body’s “fight or flight” response. When this is activated, a chain reaction of hormone releases is set off that increases your heart rate, increases blood flow to your muscles, and slows the digestive process. However, according to an article from the World Journal of Gastroenterology, it can result in disturbances in the balance between your gut and brain. This can result in stress and anxiety triggering an overactivity in the gut, which can cause diarrhea and stomach-churning so well-known to people with IBS.
Some studies even suggest that chronic stress and anxiety may even play a role in the development of IBS. This is because chronic stress can cause intestinal bacteria to become imbalanced, which is a condition known as dysbiosis, and it is believed that dysbiosis can cause someone to develop IBS. Thusly, stress and anxiety have been shown to have the potential to be the cause of IBS as well as being triggers for symptoms.
The Gut-Brain Connection
As more research is conducted into the connection between stress, anxiety, and IBS, scientists are learning that not only can anxiety be a trigger for it, but the gut can influence a person’s emotions. Researchers studying what is known as the “gut-brain connection” believe that nerves along the digestive tract can impact our brains, and their studies suggest that irritation in the gastrointestinal system can trigger mood changes and may even lead to anxiety and depression often associated with it. Considering the strong influence that the gut and brain have on each other, people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome need to be aware of the effect their mental health can have on their digestive health (and vice versa).
Things You Can Do to Reduce IBS Symptoms
So what can people who suffer from both IBS and anxiety do to manage their symptoms? Considering there is strong evidence that the health of the brain and the gut are connected, therapies that target both brain and gut health could have the greatest effect. Many people who suffer from it then find it helpful to work with mental health professionals such as a psychiatrist and/or a psychologist.
Therapy is helpful for people with it, as a therapist can teach them how to break the mind-body cycle that is making their IBS and anxiety symptoms worse. They can also help you come up with strategies to recognize and handle your triggers. In addition to seeing a therapist, there are simple things that you can do to help manage your symptoms such as:
One of the first things that you should do to help manage your IBS is to keep a journal. While it may feel weird at first to journal about your IBS, keeping a log of your symptoms each day including how frequent your bowel movements were can help you spot patterns in your symptoms. This can then help you to identify common stressors and triggers.
For those who struggle with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and anxiety, exercise can be one of the most powerful tools at your disposal to help you manage your symptoms, as exercise helps support the gut-brain connection. Not only has regular exercise been shown to be extremely powerful at regulating mood by reducing stress and anxiety, but exercise can also help your bowels contract more naturally instead of overreacting. Activities like walking, running, and swimming can then greatly help improve both IBS and anxiety symptoms.
Participating in Mind-Body Exercises
Mind-body exercises such as yoga, meditation, and mindful breathing are other excellent treatment options for both anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome. These exercises can help to calm the mind and body, bringing relief from anxiety and IBS symptoms. Yoga in particular is as effective in treating IBS symptoms as diet and exercise.
If you have irritable bowel syndrome, you must work with your doctor to find out what could be triggering your IBS and to talk about potential treatment options. Make sure to express any concerns you may have with your doctor about the effect your anxiety could be having on your Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
At Gastroenterology Group of Northern New Jersey, we care about your gastrointestinal wellbeing. We offer a range of cutting-edge treatments for various gastrointestinal conditions and diseases to give you the diagnosis and relief you deserve. Our team of highly skilled gastroenterologists is always ready to provide you with the best care and get your health back as soon as possible.
Please don’t hesitate to contact us today for inquiries or schedule a consultation with one of our gastroenterologists today.