“All in the mind” is sometimes used in a disparaging way to dismiss someone’s symptoms or, worse still, cast doubt over whether the symptoms exist at all. Yet there are clear links between stress and physical symptoms and none more so than in the case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
IBS is a painful reality for around 12 million sufferers in the UK. It is currently estimated to affect between 10 and 20% of the entire UK population although experts believe the real figure could be much higher due to people’s reluctance to speak out.
The symptoms vary from person to person but can include pain and cramping, diarrhoea, constipation or alternating between the two, bloating, gas, changes in bowel movements, food intolerances and fatigue.
If you have IBS you may have noticed that what is going on in your mind is inextricably linked to how your bowel is behaving and now research has confirmed the link between bowel and brain.
A vicious circle
Research by ASDA Pharmacy showed that if you are stressed or anxious you are more likely to experience IBS symptoms. But worrying about having IBS can increase your stress levels, leading to a vicious cycle of symptoms and stress and more symptoms. Three-quarters of the people surveyed stated that anxiety and stress exacerbates their IBS symptoms.
Going for a poo is one of the last taboos for many people and IBS can cause high levels of embarrassment, anxiety and stress. This may be why many people with the condition are undiagnosed, leading to it being labelled the “hidden disability”.
Researchers found that certain worries and behaviours are common among sufferers.
These include: the need for total privacy when going to the toilet (28%); timing meals to ensure there is easy access to a toilet (21%); having to avoid certain foods (17%); and worrying about finding time in their working day to avoid high-stress situations that can bring on symptoms (11%).
The impact of these worries can be significant. People said they had cancelled holidays, taken days off work and even been unable to leave the house for fear of having an accident.
Fears about losing their job, discomfort in social situations and humiliation can all exacerbate stress levels, leading to an increase in symptoms and an ongoing cycle of distress.
So, what can you do to break the cycle?
IBS is not like other diseases as it has no specific cause, no distinctive pathology and no single effective treatment. It is a sensitivity of the gut that can be triggered by a range of factors such as stress, diet and lifestyle changes.
Tackling IBS is not as straightforward as taking medication, unfortunately. Because the condition is so closely linked to a person’s mental and emotional state, some of the most effective treatments are lifestyle related.
People with IBS may benefit from learning relaxation techniques, undergoing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or developing a regular meditation or mindfulness practice.
If you have the condition, it can be helpful to keep a food diary so you can identify whether certain foods seem to trigger your symptoms. Some people avoid onions, garlic and fatty foods, for example. Probiotics have also been shown to help some people and it is a good idea to carry some Imodium Instants in case of a sudden attack. This can also provide greater peace of mind which, in itself, may lessen the symptoms.
If you do have IBS-type symptoms it is always worth checking them out with your GP or a gastrointestinal specialist as other more serious conditions, such as bowel cancer, share some of the same symptoms.
If a diagnosis of IBS is confirmed, your doctor will be able to advise on lifestyle changes or medication that might be able to help. There is no need to suffer in silence.