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Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Stress

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Updated January 18, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Stress may play a significant role in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common condition marked by cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. Although the exact cause of IBS is unknown, stress is thought to trigger IBS symptoms (in part by stimulating spasms in the colon). Stress is also known to disrupt the immune system, which may in turn affect IBS. What's more, dealing with the pain and discomfort of IBS can cause considerable stress in patients.

IBS and Stress Management

Since stress tends to aggravate IBS symptoms, many doctors recommend practicing stress-reducing techniques as a means of managing IBS. In addition to exercising regularly, working to control stressful situations in your life, getting sufficient sleep, and seeking support or counseling when necessary, you may want to consider the following strategies for reducing stress and keeping your IBS in check:

1) Hypnosis

Hypnotherapy may provide long-lasting relief of IBS symptoms, a 2009 research review suggests. For the review, investigators identified nine studies showing that hypnotherapy may help bring about beneficial changes in the colon (as well as lessen anxiety and depression) in IBS patients. However, the review's authors caution that many of the studies failed to examine certain key factors involved in the biological process of IBS.

What's more, in a 2007 review of four studies (with a total of 147 patients), researchers found that the "quality of the included trials was inadequate" to draw any conclusion about hypnotherapy's effectiveness in treating IBS.

2) Yoga

Practicing yoga may help manage IBS, according to a preliminary study published in 2006. For the study, researchers assigned 25 adolescent IBS patients to either a waitlist or four weeks of daily yoga practice. At the end of the study, yoga-practicing participants reported fewer IBS symptoms (as well as lower levels of functional disability and anxiety).

3) Meditation

In a small study published in 2001, IBS patients who underwent six weeks of meditation training experienced significant improvements in several IBS symptoms (including diarrhea and bloating). The meditation technique involved initiating the relaxation response, and participants were asked to practice twice a day for 15 minutes.

Using Stress Management Techniques

It's important to note that IBS patients should not rely solely on stress management techniques to treat their condition. Most IBS treatment programs incorporate a number of different therapeutic approaches, including medication and diet changes. If you're experiencing IBS symptoms (such as abdominal pain, chronic diarrhea, or chronic constipation), consult your physician as soon as possible.

The good thing about hypnosis, yoga, and meditation -– whether or not they are extremely effective for IBS –- is that they are unlikely to do any harm, and many people find these activities very valuable and relaxing.

Sources:

Hefner J, Rilk A, Herbert BM, Zipfel S, Enck P, Martens U. "Hypnotherapy for irritable bowel syndrome--a systematic review." Z Gastroenterol. 2009 47(11):1153-9.

Keefer L, Blanchard EB. "The effects of relaxation response meditation on the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome: results of a controlled treatment study." Behav Res Ther. 2001 39(7):801-11.

Kuttner L, Chambers CT, Hardial J, Israel DM, Jacobson K, Evans K. "A randomized trial of yoga for adolescents with irritable bowel syndrome." Pain Res Manag. 2006 11(4):217-23.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. "What I need to know about Irritable Bowel Syndrome". NIH Publication No. 07–4686. May 2007.

Webb AN, Kukuruzovic RH, Catto-Smith AG, Sawyer SM. "Hypnotherapy for treatment of irritable bowel syndrome." Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 17;(4):CD005110.

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