Over the course of my career I’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of patients who were confident that stress was the cause of their irritable bowel syndrome. And I used to think that it was causing my IBS too. Turns out it wasn’t, and here’s what stress and IBS really is.
And it’s logical to see why. Many people get bad digestive problems when they get really stressed. And there is a good reason for this. When you’re stressed, health issues generally get worse. They never get better. And this is especially true when you have a weak digestive system.
So it’s easy to assume that if you get IBS when you’re stressed, then the stress is the cause of your IBS symptoms. Doctors have also been happy to lock onto this connection and promote it. Why? Because they haven’t been able to find anything else going on, so it’s very convenient to blame stress. It gives them something to say.
And it’s never a bad idea to work on your stress and anxiety to improve it. Everything can and will benefit from taking that action. So in a way there isn’t much harm in blaming stress. But there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.
Ask yourself a couple of questions.
First, if stress is the cause of your IBS, then why do so many people with stress not have IBS? At least two thirds of people experience significant stress every month, but most of them certainly do NOT have IBS. Only about 10% of the population has IBS (Which is still a lot of people. WAY too many).
And then ask, is your digestion always perfect when you don’t have stress? For example, can you count on it being fine during the weekend or when you’re on vacation? If you can’t answer yes to these questions, then it’s not just stress that is causing your IBS.
It’s something else that is setting you up for a fall. And that something else is what is causing your digestive system to be weak and to be compromised. And THAT can be healed so that you digestive system functions a whole lot better, and is no longer living on the edge of cliff just waiting to be pushed over by stress or anxiety.
Now what is that something else? There are literally hundreds of different things that can make your digestive system highly susceptible to stress. But once we, IBS specialists, help patients do the specialized work to figure out what treatment needs to be done (which by the way by the way is very different for every patient, and is far different than what a gastroenterologist does), once you do that, the healing can take place.
And once your digestive tract heals, then you’ll discover that you still have stress in your life (sorry about that), but that it no longer causes you digestive problems. Actually, maybe you won’t have as much stress as before, because ironically, most people find that not having IBS usually reduces the amount of stress in their life. And you may begin to wonder which came first, the stress or the IBS.
Dr. Wangen is the founder and medical director of the IBS Treatment Center, the award winning author of two books, and a nationally recognized speaker on digestive disorders. He has been on ABC, NBC, and Fox as well as public radio, and was named one of Seattle’s Top Doctors by Seattle Magazine.