Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Stress

It is well recognised that stress, in various forms, plays a role in the development of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Sufferers of IBS often report that stress was a trigger for the onset of the disorder and or is associated with the worsening or recurrence of symptoms. In some cases, it is also observed that people with IBS may suffer with anxiety disorders, depression and phobias. As a Naturopath, Sandra recognises the need to help to reduce stress and minimise the impact of stress on the digestive system. Almost unique to herbal medicine, are herbs with various actions that may help with the way the body copes with extra stress, or reduce the symptoms of anxiety or stress, thus modifying the effect of stress on the body. Some natural therapies have been clinically trialled and shown to be effective for the management of IBS. Discuss your specific needs with your naturopath.

Stress actually changes the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract. The brain-gut interaction explains the relationship between psychological stress and the functioning of the gut and nervous system. It is a two-way message system in which thoughts, feelings, memories and environmental influences can lead to the release of chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) that affects the sensory, motor, endocrine (hormone), autonomic nervous system, immune and inflammatory function.  In people with IBS, this process may result from dysregulation of the central nervous system (controlled by the brain) and the nervous system in the gut, which then upsets the normally smooth rhythm of the gut muscles (which causes bowel spasm or cramping) and results in a sensitivity of the gut to pain (referred to as visceral sensitivity- as viscera are the soft organs of the body), particularly those in the abdomen and chest cavities). It is believed that this visceral sensitivity is common in IBS and probably plays a major role in the development of symptoms.

Research has shown that chemical messenger serotonin may be important in IBS. Serotonin is an important signalling chemical in the gut and targets the gut cells, smooth muscle and nerves in the gut.  It plays a critical role in the regulation of spontaneous movement of the gut (motility), secretions of the gut and sensation.  In IBS, it is suggested that the serotonin signalling is defective, such that this altering of the function of the nerve cells in the bowel cause changes in pain sensation and bowel function. Research is also looking at the role of therapeutic agents that may target altered serotonin signalling as new treatments for patients with IBS. While some herbs are thought to work via this pathway, there are other herbs which may be better suited for IBS treatment. Specific and tailored treatment should be discussed with Sandra.

Lifestyle changes to help to manage the effects of stress may be useful in IBS. This may include regular exercise, relaxation/meditation, and improving sleep habits to reduce anxiety.