—A Special Report from Victor Marchione, MD
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is becoming increasing prevalent as a health problem, with estimates that it may affect up to 30% of the general population. When you have the condition, you can experience frequent abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating, and constipation.
IBS is a general term for a variety of inflammatory disorders of the intestinal tract. Normally, the muscular contractions of your digestive tract are coordinated and regular. IBS can disrupt this coordination and cause painful symptoms. The difficulty with IBS, besides pain and discomfort, is that it can cause malnutrition. Nutrients are often not absorbed properly into the digestive system. Someone with IBS could need as much as 30% more protein than normal for example, as well as extra minerals and trace elements.
So IBS can be pretty serious. Scientists are unsure what causes IBS, but a recent study has found that stress could be an important trigger.
Researchers looked at data collected from 552 men and women with Crohn’s disease or colitis. Each participant completed a survey every three months for one year. The surveys asked about, among other things, symptom flare-ups, stressful events and perceived stress. Perceived stress refers to how well patients felt they could deal with their daily worries and difficulties.
The research team found that 174 patients reported a symptom flare-up during the study period, meaning they had a three-month period of symptoms after having been symptom-free the previous three months. For those that reported high levels of perceived stress, the researchers found that patients’ risk of a symptom flare-up more than doubled when preceded by high levels of stress in the previous three months. Of patients who reported a flare-up, 52% had had high perceived stress levels in the preceding three months, compared with 29% of those who remained symptom-free.
The research team also found that the use of antibiotics or anti- inflammatory painkillers — such as aspirin and ibuprofen — and infections such as colds, pneumonia and urinary tract infections had no significant effect on IBS symptoms.
During times of stress, your nervous system kick starts and acts on the lining of the colon, possibly aggravating existing inflammation. There is also evidence that stress hormones could help harmful bacteria take up residence in the intestines, which might, in turn, affect symptoms.
The researchers hope this latest study could offer some IBS sufferers a measure of relief. Learning better ways of managing stress should help to stave off flare-ups. The research team hopes that people who feel that stress is a trigger of their symptoms will talk with their doctors about it.