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Long-Term Psychological Stress Contributes to Irritable Bowel Syndrome


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)”