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Stress and IBS

Chronic stress may put you at risk for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and its host of uncomfortable symptoms. IBS is a common condition that is not life-threatening, but it is often life-long. Some people ignore their symptoms out of denial, embarrassment or neglect, but Dale C. Holly, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Piedmont, advises people who think they may have IBS to seek medical treatment. Managing the condition is important for long-term quality of life.

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome

Symptoms of IBS can come and go, and vary over time. They include:

  • Gas
  • Abdominal pain
  • Excessive bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

Are young adults most at risk for IBS?

Dr. Holly says most of the patients he sees with IBS are young, highly-driven, high-anxiety adults who are juggling multiple tasks, like career, school and family. He emphasizes the fact that the biggest triggers – stress and diet – are controllable.

“Young people like to push the envelope. They live fast-paced lifestyles with no time to decompress and no time to cook healthy, balanced meals. These bad lifestyle and eating habits eventually catch up to you,” says Dr. Holly.

He also points out that IBS is an acquired condition. Some develop it after years of eating an unhealthy diet while others may get a viral intestinal bug that triggers the onset of IBS. This is called post-infectious IBS. Symptoms can also occur for unknown reasons.


Tips to manage stress


Many people associate stress with high blood pressure, insomnia and depression, but it also negatively impacts the intestines and bowels.

“The mind and gut are intricately connected,” Dr. Holly says. “When I see a patient who may have IBS, I really try to get to know them as a person. Their personality is a good indicator as to their gastrointestinal health. Type A, anxious, excitable people are more prone to IBS compared to laidback individuals.”

There are a wide variety of ways to manage stress and every individual needs to identify what works best for them. Here are some things to try:

Tips to manage diet

The best approach for determining which foods trigger IBS is to keep a food diary. Dr. Holly advises patients to take ownership of their condition and be observant of how their body reacts to foods. Some of the biggest triggers include wheat products, high-fiber foods and caffeine. Natural foods as well as processed foods can contribute to IBS, though processed foods and genetically modified foods should be eaten in moderation.

“IBS is manageable, but you have to be disciplined and committed. You have to have a great understanding of your body and make healthy diet and lifestyle choices,” advises Dr. Holly.

If you are experiencing a change in bowel habits or have any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor. You don't have to suffer in silence.

For more information about digestive health, click here.

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