The Link Between Stress and IBS: Part 1

By Stephanie Walsh, CPT, CNTP, CEPC

Bowel Syndrome (IBS), understanding how to get back to wellness can feel confusing and daunting. But in your journey towards better health, you may be missing one very important question that could make all the difference: Can stress management and rebalancing the gut microbiota improve IBS symptoms? This three-part article series will help answer that question, shed some light on a complicated disorder and provide knowledge, guidance and hope to those suffering from IBS.


Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) has been defined as a functional disorder of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract with typical symptoms of abdominal pain and altered bowel habits. As a functional disorder there is no special testing to confirm IBS, unlike inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Although IBD conditions have diagnosable inflammation and damage, this does not mean inflammation doesn’t also play a role in IBS. In fact, low-grade inflammation has been considered one of the contributing factors of IBS.

There are six possible contributing fac- tors to the symptoms of IBS:

• Low-grade inflammation

• Abnormal gut motility (constipation and diarrhea)

22 ELM™ Maine - May/June 2018

or any person who has suffered pro- longed or severe digestive complaints, with or without a diagnosis of Irritable

• Visceral hypersensitivity (abdominal pain)

• Altered brain-gut function • Intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut) • Psychosocial factors IBS is the most prevalent functional

bowel disorder worldwide, affecting 10-25% of the population in developed countries and accounting for approximately 50% of doctor visits for GI complaints. So, if you suffer from IBS, you certainly are not alone! IBS is becoming as common as living a fast-paced, stressful life. This is not a coincidence, considering the role stress plays in the disorder. Specifically, anxiety and depression are common conditions shared among IBS patients; an altered stress response has been found in IBS sufferers; and stressful life events have been shown to increase risk of developing or causing relapse of IBS.

In Part One of this three-part article

series, you will learn more about the con- nection between stress and IBS. Part Two, coming up in the next ELMTM

Maine issue,

will dive deeper into the link between stress and microbiota dysbiosis (imbalance of the bug community living in your diges- tive tract) as well as how dysbiosis leads to IBS symptoms. Finally, you’ll want to keep reading because Part Three, the last in the series, will discuss nutrition and lifestyle changes you can make to manage stress,

rebalance your gut microbiota and improve IBS symptoms.

How the Human Body Responds to Stress

Stress has been a normal part of human life since Homo sapiens existed. Although the stressors have changed, the body’s response has not. When you are exposed to a stressor – extreme heat or cold, ill- ness, physical trauma, loss of a loved one, traffic, work deadline, a cruel co-worker or even the thought of something stressful – your body responds physiologically. This response is called the General Adaptation Syndrome.

General Adaptation Syndrome Hans Selye, the “Father of Stress Re-

search,” proposed the now widely accepted three-phase progressive stress model called the General Adaptation Syndrome. This model describes three phases:

1.Alarm Phase. This is the body’s initial response to a stressor.

2.Resistance Phase. This phase begins when the body starts to adapt to the stressor.

3.Exhaustion Phase. If the stress is con- tinued and prolonged, that stressor can negatively affect health, wearing down the body’s resistance to stress.

During the alarm phase, a stress or threat is perceived and the body kicks into

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