“Stress” is a term that healthcare providers use to describe normal responses in the body that are needed for health and survival. Understanding the responses of the mind and body when called upon during stress may provide insight into an underlying cause of IBS and open the door to new and more effective treatment.

One way to understand irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is that there is an increased gastrointestinal (GI) response to stress. Stress can be understood as anything that can stimulate the GI tract, including:

  • Diet
  • Hormonal changes
  • Physical activity
  • Psychological stress

Stress can arise from a perceived or actual event that disturbs the balance between mind, brain, and body. Stress can occur with or without conscious feelings of anxiety, distress, or anger.

Stress can be acute (short term) or chronic (long-acting, more than three months). It can range from daily hassles to life-threatening events.

Chronic stress experienced in early life (less than 18 years of age) has been shown to be associated with an increased prevalence of many medical conditions, including:

  • Asthma
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • IBS

Stressors are any factors that produce stress. There are various types of stressors that may impact IBS symptoms. These may be physical (such as infection, surgery) and/or psychological (such as loss of job, divorce, history of abuse) in origin.

Stress has been shown to increase motility and sensation of the colon to a greater degree in IBS patients compared to healthy individuals without IBS.

IBS results from a complex biologic interaction between the brain and gut. To understand IBS, it’s important to recognize that this condition represents a heightened sensitivity of the bowel and this can be manifested in response to internal and external stressors.

Addressing stressors that may be associated with IBS symptoms is the first step in understanding the relationship between stress and IBS. People suffering from IBS should work with their health care providers in developing a management plan to address these issues effectively, when present, in order to decrease symptoms and improve the overall quality of life.

Note: Opinions expressed are an author’s own and not necessarily those of the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD). IFFGD does not guarantee or endorse any product in this publication or any claim made by an author and disclaims all liability relating thereto. This article is in no way intended to replace the knowledge or diagnosis of your healthcare provider. We advise seeing a physician whenever a health problem arises requiring an expert’s care.

Source: Adapted from IFFGD Publication #101 revised and updated by Douglas A. Drossman, MD, Drossman Gastroenterology PLLC, Chapel Hill, NC.

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IFFGD is a nonprofit education and research organization. Our mission is to inform, assist, and support people affected by gastrointestinal disorders.

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