Can You Relax Your IBS Away?

Escaping the vicious IBS-stress cycle | 3 min read


If you’re battling irritable bowel syndrome, you’ve probably experienced this frustrating truth: stress tends to make IBS flare up and IBS flare-ups tend to make you feel more stressed.


Getting caught in this vicious cycle can make an already difficult illness completely debilitating as you go ‘round and ‘round, carried further and further downward by a steady stream of stress and pain. Over time, those who get trapped in this cycle can feel like there’s no hope for overcoming IBS.


But what’s behind this vicious cycle?


In the article, “Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndrome”, researchers explain that psychological stress can increase “intestinal sensitivity, motility, secretion and permeability”.1 These changes lead to the kind of symptoms associated with IBS.


This doesn’t necessarily mean that your stress caused your IBS. The syndrome is still being studied, but what is clear is that stress is an important contributor to the onset and development of the illness.


In fact, research has shown that children who experienced “early adverse life events” (such as general trauma, physical punishment, emotional abuse, and sexual events) were much more likely to experience IBS and other gastrointestinal disorders as adults.2


This relationship between stress and IBS is even more clear when we look at what scientists call “the gut-brain axis”. The gut-brain axis is an incredibly complicated communication network between your central and enteric nervous systems.3 Or in layman's terms... What happens in your gut affects your brain and what happens in your brain affects your gut.


Hence, the problem with stress.


But that’s also where there’s some good news — especially for those who feel powerless in the face of their IBS. Just like stress can create a vicious cycle of worsening IBS symptoms, relaxation techniques could potentially create a virtuous cycle of improving symptoms.


An uncontrolled pilot study which enrolled 19 IBS and 29 IBD patients in a 9-week relaxation program using a simple form of meditation along with cognitive skill building found that participants reported improvements in their symptoms, their anxiety, and their quality of life.4


Keeping in mind that larger, controlled studies are needed to confirm these findings, they do show promise for those wishing to exit the viscous IBS-stress cycle.


Whether or not stress caused your IBS, we know that IBS is a “stress-sensitive disorder”.1 Therefore, any effective treatment for your IBS is probably going to have to include, at least in part, tools for decreasing your long-term stress.


Have you tried any relaxation techniques that have improved your IBS symptoms? Send us an email or message us on social media to let us know what’s helped you. And to track how stress is affecting your IBS symptoms, download the free Phyla app today.


1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4202343

2https://www.cghjournal.org/article/S1542-3565(11)01333-4/pdf

3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4367209

4https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25927528