How Can Stress Affect Ibs?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS is a medical syndrome that can result from a number of etiological reasons. The interaction between the autonomous nervous system that controls bowel motions and the central nervous system means that anxiety and mental stress can have an impact on IBS.
How Can Stress Affect IBS?
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Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a disorder that manifests from the disturbances of the bowel movements. Since bowel movements are controlled with the autonomous nervous system of the body, any psychological stress can disturb the bowel functioning further and end up worsening the disorder. Understanding the disorder and awareness can help in preventing exacerbations and limiting the anxiety associated with it.


IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME and STRESS almost intricately linked with each other. They virtually form a vicious cycle that perpetuates itself.

Understanding Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome or IBS is not one single disease, but a group of disorders having a common feature

disturbed bowel habits, leading to diarrhea or constipation along with abdominal cramps, stomach discomfort, nausea and an overall disturbed bowel health. IBS usually persists for long periods but is not life threatening. It is not possible to pin point any single factor as the main cause.

Understanding IBS requires an insight in the normal functioning of the intestines. Bowel habits and movements are controlled by peristaltic movement of intestines, which are regulated by a local network of nerves spread across the length of intestines, which ensure that movement of food particles in the intestines are orderly, rhythmic and smooth. This network is autonomous, but is affected by signals coming from the brain. Thus, when we are passing through an emergency situation like having a fight or running for our life, then the signals from the brain will ensure that bowels movements are diminished.

Effect of Stress on IBS

Unfortunately stress also leads to similar signals, which interfere in the normal peristaltic movement of intestines and cause irregular bowel movements, which is the hallmark of IBS and leads to its various symptoms like stomach ache, colic, flatulence, constipation and frequent motions.

This is the mode by which stress interferes with bowels and worsens IBS.

The effect of relaxation on bowels is reverse to that of stress. A signal from the brain activates the nerves that control the bowel and may lead to coordinated bowel motions. When the same pattern

of signaling is followed day after day, it leads to formation of 'bowel habits', as happens in younger age, and by which the effect of this signal becomes augmented.

In IBS, the local nervous network is unable to result in smooth coordinated movements of bowels. As a result proper motion of bowels fails to take place, and since the bowels are not cleaned, it movements get repeated at short intervals leading to frequency of motions and diarrhea. At other times, the irregular, disturbed or sluggish bowel movements lead to constipation. Sometimes, the same irregular movements can lead to spasms of intestines and cause pain known as 'colic'. If these spasms become severe, intestines can get entangled in each other, resulting in greater pain and even bleeding.

Stress indirectly interferes with bowel movements, even in a normal person. In a person with IBS, it can severely worsen the already disturbed bowel habits, by making the bowel movements even more uncoordinated. Because of this, stress worsens IBS and managing stress is an important part of the treatment strategy for IBS.

Relaxation & Rest as a Means to Manage IBS

IBS is at its worse in the morning, when the bowel movements are most pronounced. Little surprise then that a good night's sleep can make a difference. However, most cases of IBS need to manage stress beyond sleep. The primary aim is to make the body and mind relaxed, because relaxation is a necessity for smooth and undisturbed bowel movements. This can be achieved by many ways. Meditation and biofeedback are some of the ways for achieving this goal. The best way would be to opt for a comprehensive stress management strategy.

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