Can Stress Trigger IBS Symptoms?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2016. | Last updated: June 2017

Psychiatric or emotional disorders are common among people who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The prevalence of at least one psychiatric disorder among people with IBS is approximately 40% to 60%, which may include depression and anxiety.1

Psychosocial factors

Psychosocial factors may work with environmental factors and gut physiology to cause IBS. Psychosocial factors may include the following:2

  • Life stress
  • Abuse history
  • Mood disorders (depression, anxiety)
  • Ineffective coping methods
  • Poor social support system
  • Neuroticism

How is stress harmful to my body?

Stress that becomes chronic or exceeds the body’s ability to maintain an effective stress response will eventually become harmful by interrupting the body’s normal balance. For most people, psychological stress is more common than physical stress.1 Psychological distress, including stress and anxiety, works with other triggers to cause flare-ups or worsening of IBS symptoms.2

Psychological stresses may impact a variety of bodily functions and activities.1

  • Motility, or the movement of muscles in the intestinal tract
  • Nervous system
  • Normal gastrointestinal environment
  • Intestinal permeability
  • Inflammatory response
  • Intestinal sensitivity
  • Immune system response

Stress may alter hormones and other parts of the brain, which may ultimately affect the brain-gut interactions and lead to changes to your body’s gastrointestinal tract. In addition, stress may alter the nervous system response, which can change the way a person responds to pain.1

Studies suggest that a key part in linking stress to increased intestinal permeability may be corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF).3 CRF is a protein found in the central nervous system that initiates the body’s endocrine and behavioral response to stress.4 Therefore, increased levels of CRF and mild inflammation were found during stressful situations.3

Can cognitive and behavioral therapies improve my IBS symptoms?

Psychologic therapies may be beneficial to improving IBS symptoms. People who are highly motivated, have mostly pain symptoms, or have stress triggers may respond well to this kind of treatment.2

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