The role of stress in IBS


People with irritable bowel syndrome suffer from constipation and diarrhoea, abdominal pain, cramping, bloating and gas.

About 20 percent of Americans have IBS, and women are more likely than men to experience symptoms. Although the condition can be very uncomfortable and sometimes acutely painful, it doesn’t cause death or permanent damage. IBS can come and go and even permanently resolve itself.

No one knows exactly what causes the problem, but there are indications that people with IBS have colons that tend to react more strongly to stress and certain foods – which is the reason why the condition used to be referred to as spastic colon.

What is stress?

Stress is your body's way of responding to any kind of demand or threat, whether it be real or perceived. Many situations can cause stress. A few examples are:

  • Crime
  • Death of a loved one
  • Arguments
  • Change
  • Violence
  • Health problems
  • Demanding job
  • Financial problems

Read: The symptoms of stress

When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. This is also known as the “fight of flight” reaction.

Before modern civilisation, the majority of threats demanded a physical reaction, for instance when faced with a hungry lion or an attack by a neighbouring tribe. This meant that the resulting stress hormones were put to good use, enabling one to stand and fight, or take flight to escape the threat.

Unfortunately, however, the human body cannot distinguish whether a threat requires a physical reaction or not. For example, financial insecurity can be a very real threat, but cannot be countered by fighting or running away. In modern times this is the main kind of stress we experience, which means that our bodies prepare us for physical action that seldom materialises.

Stress can shut off digestion

Normally, once the real or perceived threat disappears, the stress hormones subside and our blood pressure and heart rate return to normal, but if we feel stressed on an ongoing basis, our stress hormones are activated all the time, disrupting our normal physical processes on a constant basis. Stress therefore becomes a "habit".

Read: Manage stress

Many people don’t realise the negative effect stress has on our digestive system. It is difficult for our bodies to cope with stress and digest our food at the same time. Depending on the level of stress, our digestion can be shut off entirely – when the body chooses survival over digestion.  

According to the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, stress can:

  • Affect gut peristalsis
  • Cause heartburn
  • Affect gut immunity
  • Weaken our digestive metabolism

CyberShrink comments

Health24’s CyberShrink believes that depression and stress (psychological and/or physical) play a part in every disorder and disease known to man. When stress is not the actual cause of a condition, it may be an exacerbating factor. What we also need to consider is to what extent a disease or condition may be causing stress. 

Stress, unhappiness and depression may cause us to focus on our physical symptoms and amplify our experience from whatever cause, leading to more stress, and so forth, causing a vicious circle. 

Read: Stress busting tips

This kind of stress can certainly lead to digestive problems!

CyberShrink goes on to add that with the help of a psychologist or psychiatrist a patient can learn how to better handle stress, which can potentially improve symptoms and the outcome of IBS, among other conditions. 

Read more:

The physiology of stress

Understanding stress

IBS difficult to treat


ADAA: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

Health24: Sleep – Is Lactium the new mother's milk?

Changing Minds: Causes of stress.

HG: Stress Symptoms, Signs and Causes.

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