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Anxiety and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Faiq Shaikh, M.D.
Anxiety and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Anxiety may be a mental health issue, but it has a powerful effect on your body chemistry. The stress from IBS changes your hormone production, alters your immune system, and in some cases, upsets your digestive tract.

So it comes as little surprise that anxiety has been linked to contributing to the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), also known as "spastic colon" - a chronic condition that causes bloating, gastrointestinal discomforts, erratic bowel movements, chronic abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation.

IBS is diagnosed when these symptoms are present without a medical cause, and while scientists believe that there are likely other factors that go into IBS, most agree that anxiety and stress contribute to its development.

Before Diagnosing Yourself With IBS

Self-diagnosis is always a bad idea. If you believe that you're suffering from IBS, check with your doctor. There are several harmless and harmful diseases that cause many of the same symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and only a doctor can rule out these conditions.

Also, many of the symptoms of IBS are also seen in those with intolerance to certain types of foods. It may be in your best interests to investigate your food intolerances. Make sure that you're not sensitive to foods with gluten, certain grains, dairy products, etc. - all of these create the same types of symptoms as IBS, but represent a very different cause and treatment.

Other Causes of IBS

It's widely believed that anxiety is the chief cause of IBS. Yet not everyone with anxiety gets IBS. It may have something to do with neurotransmitter production. Those with anxiety may be low on neurotransmitters like serotonin, and the gut has receptors that are also reactive to serotonin levels.

It's also believed that IBS may be related to the levels of "good bacteria" compared to "bad bacteria," and there may be some component of those living with anxiety that allows bad bacteria to flourish. Some even believe that IBS may be more common in those that have undergone antibiotics, possibly because anxiety prevents the good bacteria from regaining its strength after an antibiotic treatment.

It may also have something to do with muscle tension as it relates to anxiety and stress. During periods of intense stress, your body may be creating pressure on the muscles that cause your intestinal tract to move slower or faster than it would in someone without anxiety.

Anxiety and stress are certainly key factors, but it does appear that there is more involved.

How to Reduce the Effects of IBS

Irritable bowel syndrome can be an upsetting disorder. Regular trips to the bathroom may be embarrassing, and the physical effects of IBS - including abdominal pain and gas/bloating - can have an effect on anxiety as well, especially those with health anxiety/panic attacks.

Because IBS has no known cause, it also has no known cure, other than reducing your anxiety. In some people, IBS may simply disappear - especially after anxiety treatments. In others, it may be necessary to make lifestyle changes that help you manage your IBS so that the symptoms stop disrupting your life.

For those in a constant struggle with IBS, try the following strategies to reduce the way irritable bowel syndrome affects your life. These strategies may not cure IBS altogether, but they can make living with the condition far more bearable:

Finally, the most important thing you can do to decrease your IBS symptoms is to prevent your anxiety. You can't expect to treat IBS if you still suffer from stress and anxiety on a regular basis.

IBS is a syndrome, not an illness. It's caused by stress and anxiety and made worse by stress and anxiety. Only by curing your anxiety can you expect to manage it.

Article Resources
  1. Susan J. Shepherd, Francis C. Parker, Jane G. Muir, Peter R. Gibson, Dietary Triggers of Abdominal Symptoms in Patients With Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Randomized Placebo-Controlled Evidence, Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Volume 6, Issue 7, July 2008, Pages 765-771, ISSN 1542-3565, 10.1016/j.cgh.2008.02.058
  2. Jarrett M, Visser R, Heitkemper M. Diet triggers symptoms in women with irritable bowel syndrome. The patient's perspective. Gastroenterol Nurs. 2001 Sep-Oct;24(5):246-52.
  3. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Fact Sheet. Womenshealth.gov. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2012.
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