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Can Stress Cause Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Ask a Doctor

I have a job as an executive for a mid-sized company. I was recently promoted to take on more responsibility. It seems as if every time I have to make a big presentation, I start getting gassy and have frequent bowel movements, if not outright diarrhea. I’m wondering if stress is the cause. Can stress cause irritable bowel syndrome?

Doctor’s Response

The cause of irritable bowel syndrome is unclear. Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome may worsen during periods of stress or during menstruation, but these factors are unlikely to be the cause that leads to the development of IBS. Avoiding activities that cause stress or anxiety may prevent IBS symptoms from occurring. IBS and its symptoms can be relieved or at least improved with non-medical and food-related therapies. Relieving stress and anxiety will help improve IBS symptoms.

Exercise for IBS

  • Moderate exercise seems to help with IBS. A moderate exercise program showed an improvement of IBS symptoms in one research study. During exercise it is important to stay hydrated and keep the exercise at a moderate level.

Yoga to reduce stress and anxiety

  • Yoga has shown to improve IBS symptoms. Well-trained yoga practitioners will be able to take you through a yoga practice that not only relieves stress but also can specifically work on your digestive system.

Meditation and mindfulness to reduce stress and anxiety

  • Meditation decreases stress and anxiety. It has also been linked with a decrease in IBS symptoms.

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References
Barrett, J. et al. "Fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols (FODMAPs) and nonallergic food intolerance: FODMAPs or food chemicals?" Therap Adv Gastroenterol. Jul 2012; 5(4): 261–268.

Johannesson, E., et.al. "Physical activity improves symptoms in irritable bowel syndrome: a randomized controlled trial." American Journal of Gastroenterology 2011 106:915-922.

Magge, S. et al. "Low-FODMAP Diet for Treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome." Gastroenterol Hepatol (N Y). Nov 2012; 8(11): 739–745.

Muir, J. et al. "The Low FODMAP Diet for Treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Other Gastrointestinal Disorders." Gastroenterol Hepatol (N Y). Jul 2013; 9(7): 450–452.

Wald, A. MD. "Patient education: Irritable bowel syndrome (Beyond the Basics). UpToDate. Updated: Aug 12, 2015.
<http://www.uptodate.com/contents/irritable-bowel-syndrome-beyond-the-basics>
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