Anxiety & Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Anyone who has ever been anxious, even for the shortest period of time, knows the way their stomach grumbles in sympathy. It perhaps shouldn't be surprising to learn therefore that one of the most common physical complaints associated with anxiety is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Having said that, anxiety may not be the cause of IBS. In fact it still isn't really clear what the relationship is between IBS and anxiety, except for the fact that it seems to exist. We know, for example, that relief from stress can help to ease the symptoms associated with the syndrome. We also know that certain changes to diet and lifestyle can have positive effects.
The cause of IBS may not be known, but its association with anxiety and stress and the lack of any obvious organic cause, make it an easy target to be considered psychosomatic. There are however a number of other possible candidates for the condition, a review of which can be found on the Mayo Clinic website.
IBS (sometimes still described as spastic colon) is one of the most common conditions affecting the gut affecting as many as 1 in 5 adults. It affects more women than men and its symptoms may be mild or severe. Pain, often in the form of cramps or spasms, is common. Bloating, belching, feeling full after food are symptoms. Commonly, the person experiences constipation and/or diarrhea.
People who suffer from anxiety or stress can often associate an upsurge in gastric upsets with difficult times. It may be work related, loneliness, or even disrupted sleep and dietary patterns. Remove the problem and there may also be a corresponding reduction in gastric symptoms.
Sometimes it is our body that tells us things aren't right. If we are attuned to the changes and can join the dots, it can be easier to take some corrective action. Whether or not IBS results from stress is, in some ways, beside the point. For all we know it is the symptoms of IBS that add to anxiety and so begins a vicious circle. We know the brain and the body have a complex and subtle relationship so it seems reasonable to consider both in any therapy.
These days there is no shortage of advice as to how best to treat IBS. The Mayo Clinic suggests deep breathing to help relax the abdominal muscles. They also suggest eating regularly and taking regular exercise in order help stimulate normal contractions of the intestines.
An intake of soluble fiber, that is, fiber found in oats, nuts, seeds and some fruit and vegetables may be more beneficial than insoluble fiber found, for example, in maize or wheat bran. A good intake of fluids (not alcohol or too much caffeine) and limiting fruit to no more than three portions a day is additional advice. There is some indication that probiotics can be beneficial. For some people with IBS there may also be an issue of food intolerance. If this is suspected a tolerance test can be undertaken. A dietician may also be able to help on what is known as an exclusion diet - replacing one food group or substance for another. Another good overview of IBS and possible treatments can be found on the website Patient.