Long-Term Psychological Stress Contributes to Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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Acute stress and anxiety is related to irritable bowel syndrome as it causes symptoms such as stomach upset and greater awareness of colon spasms. But long-term psychological traumas, such as divorce, natural disaster, or physical or mental abuse are also linked to the chronic gastrointestinal disorder. A study presented at the American College of Gastroenterology’s Annual Scientific Meeting finds that those with childhood and adult traumas more commonly report IBS symptoms.

According to Edward Blanchard PhD, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany, about 60% of IBS patients will meet the criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders. These range from generalized anxiety disorder (the most common) and depression to more serious disorders.

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Mayo Clinic researchers recently found that, in a study of 2623 participants, those who reported a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome had more traumas over a lifetime than relatives who are unaffected. Childhood abuse has been reported to be present in up to 50% of patients with IBS, a prevalence of twice that of patients without the disorder notes Yuri Saito-Loftus MD, who presented the findings.

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Irritable Bowel Syndrome is marked by abdominal discomfort and bloating. IBS-D is accompanied by diarrhea while IBS-C is accompanied by constipation. Having both diarrhea and constipation is often described as “mixed IBS” or IBS-M. Research suggests that IBS is caused by changes in the nerves and muscles that control sensation and motility of the bowel. Trauma may further sensitize the brain and gut.

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WebMD offers self-help recommendations for those IBS patients who are coping with stress and anxiety that include regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and eating a good diet. Stress management techniques such as relaxation and deep breathing or participating in an enjoyable activity can also help.

Dr. Saito-Loftus notes that patients with both stress experiences and IBS who continue to have symptoms, which is about one third of patients, should explore professional evaluation and treatment.

Source: American College of Gastroenterology, “A Case-Control Study of Childhood and Adult Trauma in the Development of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)”

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