Managing IBS During a Pandemic

The world is filled with uncertainty now and rightfully so. We must all be more conscious of our interactions with others for our health. Are your hands are extremely dry and cracked from excessive hand washing? Do you shutter a little bit every time you catch yourself touching your face? You are not alone!

For people who are in good health, this is a stressful time. When you have a health condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), this type of stress can have a significant impact on your bowel symptoms and also lead to more debilitating anxiety.

Why does stress have such an impact on IBS?

The enteric nervous system (ENS) is made up of hundreds of millions of nerves that drive the bi-directional pathway between the brain and the gut. Many people are aware of the emotional effects of stress, such as feeling irritable, tired, anxious or depressed. Stress causes the release of hormones, specifically corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) which can impact your body’s immune response and can affect bacteria in the gut. Therefore, stress can cause physical changes in the body that can be particularly problematic for the digestive system and people with IBS.

Here are a few physical manifestations of stress:1

  • Increases intestinal permeability (how things impact the lining of your intestines)
  • Alterations in gastrointestinal motility (how fast or slow your bowels move)
  • Increases visceral perception (you become more sensitive to bowel pain)
  • Negative effects on the regenerative capacity of the gastrointestinal mucosa and mucosal blood flow (how fast your body can heal)
  • Negative effects on intestinal microbiota (contributes to overall health)

It is important to highlight that not only does stress have an impact on IBS, but it can affect gut physiology in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), peptic ulcer, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), food allergies and more.

Coronavirus Stress

When you know that stress impacts your health, it can feel overwhelming. With the current state of the coronavirus pandemic, many are under significant stress related to the uncertainty of this situation. You can’t find hand sanitizer on store shelves, children are out of school, and many are working from home. The world has been instructed to socially distance and we don’t quite know when this will end. You can’t turn on the television or your social media without an onslaught of COVID-19 information and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Therefore, we must begin to find strategies in our current state of affairs that brings a calm to the stress that is capable of wreaking havoc on our body and mind.

What can be done about coronavirus stress?

Now is the best time to focus on strengthening your immune system. Consider these suggestions:

Create healthy sleep habits and maintain structure in your sleep schedule.

If you are working from home, it can be easy to relax into later nights and sleeping in. However, you will feel most productive when you stick to a routine, allowing for some flexibility.

Begin or maintain your relaxation routine.

Meditation and mindfulness can activate the parasympathetic nervous system (your body’s relaxation response). This helps release stress hormones and create calm in the body and mind. Start with a 3-5 minute practice each day or use an app of your choice (ie, Smiling Mind, Headspace, Buddhify, etc.)

Go outside.

Not only can you enjoy social distancing in the great outdoors, but you can get some exercise as well. Find a chair in the sun for some vitamin D and then enjoy a walk with a loved one. Twenty minutes of fresh air each day can do wonders for the immune system.

Eat nutritious meals.

It can be easy to snack more frequently when home, so work on eating according to the clock. This can curb emotional snacking and ensure that you aren’t overindulging on foods that may agitate your stomach. If you follow a particular diet, such as the low FODMAP diet, now is a great time to look for recipes, meal prep, or try something new. Registered Dietitian Kate Scarlata's website offers excellent, GI-friendly content.

Speak to a health professional

By making a connection to the role of stress on your body and taking conscious steps to manage your stress, you can feel more empowered. Should you feel that you need more specific guidance and support to manage your stress and anxiety, you may benefit from establishing care with a mental health professional who can develop a treatment plan specifically for you. To find a local provider, check out PsychologyToday or Rome GI Psych.

While many are impacted by the unknowns of the coronavirus, these stress management suggestions will give you actionable steps that can greatly improve your health and wellbeing in a time when we need it most. Be well!

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