Could pandemic stress lead to higher rates of IBS?

key takeaways

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome has been a trending health topic on TikTok.
  • Mental health and gut health are inextricably linked, which means that stress may play a major role in rising IBS rates.
  • Getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, eating well, practicing yoga and meditation are a few ways to reduce stress and improve mental and gut health.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) was all the rage last year when TikTok users turned it into a “spice girl problem” — a health problem that even “hot girls” have to deal with on a daily basis.

This common digestive disorder appears to be back in vogue. Is it related to increased stress? Could an epidemic be contagious to us by wreaking havoc on our digestive system?

Janice Johnston, MD, chief medical officer and co-founder of Redirect Health, says yes.

“The incidence of IBS patients has been on the rise in the United States and globally,” Johnston told VigorTip. “Some IBS triggers, such as stress, anxiety, certain eating habits and proper healthcare, have been exacerbated by the lockdown and the pandemic and may contribute to the rise in IBS.”

A small study found that people with IBS and accompanying anxiety or depression reported worsening symptoms, including abdominal pain and diarrhea, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued.

The link between IBS and stress

Research has long explored the link between psychology and gut health. A study examining how stress promotes the development of IBS states, “IBS is a combination of irritable bowel and irritable brain.”

Factors such as medications, family history, food sensitivities, or just being female may contribute to a higher risk of IBS. But Johnston explained that stress is considered one of the main risk factors for IBS because it can alter the function of the digestive tract.

“When your body has a flight response, your brain tells your gastrointestinal system to stop prioritizing digestion, so you can focus on dealing with the cause of your anxiety,” she said. “In turn, too much stress can lead to Often affects your digestion and alters the balance of good bacteria in your gut.”

Irritable bowel syndrome or not, most people have probably experienced gut discomfort during the most stressful moments of their lives, showing just how closely the brain and gastrointestinal system are truly connected.

According to Chicago-based physician Vivek Cherian, MD, these moments cause hormone levels to fluctuate, although they usually return to normal levels once the stressful situation subsides. The real problem arises when people are under chronic stress, in which stress hormones never return to a steady state.

Has the pandemic made IBS worse?

Although the pandemic and its associated stressors may have contributed to an increase in IBS rates, the effects have been inconsistent.

Last year, a small study found that COVID lockdowns actually improved symptoms in some people who already had IBS.

According to Johnston, this can be explained by the ability to have more control over one’s own environment in lockdown.

“The impact of the pandemic can vary widely, and some people who already have IBS have been able to stay at home during lockdown and have found their symptoms have eased, noting their concern about certain environmental factors that often trigger more severe symptoms. With more control,” she said.

Whether you join an IBS club or not, Johnston and Cherian say there are many things you can do to improve your mental health and, in turn, your gut health.

This includes making sure you get enough sleep (7 to 8 hours a night), staying hydrated, reducing your caffeine and alcohol intake, practicing yoga or meditation, and eating a healthy diet consisting of vegetables, fish or lean meats, whole grains , and foods containing vitamins B and C. You can also consider other methods, such as acupuncture or massage.

Mental health professionals can also help practice cognitive-behavioral skills to relieve stress and anxiety, Cherian added.

“Some people find an IBS support group very helpful in managing stress and ultimately managing their IBS symptoms,” Cherian said. “Bottom line: what works for one person may not work for another, but it’s best to try various strategies that will ultimately help reduce anxiety and stress in your life.”

what does this mean to you

If you find yourself experiencing IBS symptoms for the first time, it may be related to the level of stress you experience in your daily life. There are many ways you can reduce stress and improve your gut health, including getting more sleep, eating well, meditating, and seeking professional help if necessary.