Stress impacts us all. If this wasn’t clear before 2020, last year sure did show us. From work, family, and financial stressors, to lack of sleep, natural disasters, viruses, and social injustice issues, there’s been a lot to deal with. All this stress doesn’t only mess with your head, it may also be wreaking havoc on your gut. This is particularly true if you’re prone to tummy troubles, aka irritable bowel syndrome or IBS.
IBS is a disorder of the gut that impacts overall gut functioning. There’s nothing structurally wrong with the gut, but factors like the bowel moving too fast, or too slow, or heightened nerve sensitivity in the gut may result in an increase of gas or bowel movements that you wouldn’t normally feel. It’s a very common condition affecting up to 1 in 5 people at some point in their lives, and affects twice as many women as men. Those with IBS may experience symptoms such as abdominal discomfort, pain, bloating, and constipation or diarrhea, or both. While experts aren’t sure of the exact cause, symptoms can be triggered by stress, infection, certain foods, or hormonal changes like menstruation.
Stress may trigger IBS… Let’s imagine a stressful situation: You’ve got a huge presentation this morning, you’re late, and you’re feeling less than prepared, after a poor night’s sleep, when you frantically dial into the virtual meeting and see a screen full of unfamiliar faces. Your heart is racing and you’re panicking.
In this moment, your body is going into fight-or-flight mode, which can trigger inflammation, changes in your gut sensitivity, and muscle contractions that are important for digestion. This can lead to increased abdominal discomfort and a flare up of IBS symptoms—less than ideal in the moments when you need to perform in front of a virtual crowd. This distressing response to stress is thought to occur in up to one third of people with IBS.
…and IBS may cause stress. It’s understandable how living with chronic IBS can cause stress and anxiety. Abdominal pain and unpredictable bowel habits can make leaving the house seem scary. You may be fearful that a sudden flare up could occur in public, which can be distressing and embarrassing. Learning to manage your IBS with lifestyle, diet, and sometimes medication can help to ease the anxiety.
If you’re constantly finding yourself stressed out or feeling chronic gut pain, this can have long term consequences on how you experience that pain. The sooner you can get a handle on your stress levels, the better able you may be at overcoming or managing your IBS symptoms.
Tips to manage your IBS symptoms if stress is your trigger
Journaling can have a profound effect on how we experience and process stress. It can also be a key way to document when you have a flare-up and what might have occurred that day or week. This helps you better identify triggers and trends so you can course-correct in the future.
Exercise is key to any stress management plan and may help improve IBS symptom severity. Mind-body activities such as yoga or tai chi may additionally help alleviate stress and anxiety that’s worsened by IBS.
Prioritizing self care may help you carve out time in your day that allows a few moments to reset and achieve better work-life balance.
Get support from a therapist who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Theory (CBT). CBT encourages behavior change and coping mechanisms to help manage stress and anxiety.
“Stress is not a big issue for me, but I’ve still got IBS issues!”
If stress isn’t the trigger of your tummy troubles, you may need to consider your diet. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
Identify your food triggers. Start a food and symptom diary to keep track of the foods and beverages you consume, how much you’re consuming, and the symptoms you’re experiencing. This may help you better understand your triggers and could also be shared with your PCP or Registered Dietitian for additional guidance.
Are FODMAPS at play? Certain foods like apples, milk, and onions contain naturally-occuring sugars that could be causing you tummy troubles. Get help from a Registered Dietitian if you think you may be sensitive to FODMAPs.
It’s common to experience worsened IBS symptoms just before your period starts. So, keep track of your menstrual cycle in the Female Health Tracking feature of the Fitbit app. If you know an acute bout of symptoms is coming, you can be better prepared.
Talk with your doctor to determine if something else could be impacting your IBS.
Interested in learning more about how your body reacts to stress? Fitbit’s Stress Management Score tool can help you understand if your body is showing signs of stress on a daily basis. Your score ranges from 1 to 100—a higher number means you’re showing fewer physical signs of stress. It’s calculated based on three metrics: responsiveness (how much strain your body is under), exertion balance (impact of your activity), and sleep patterns (how well you’ve been sleeping). Learn more about the Stress Management Score here.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.