IBS: How Stress Affects The Stomach

By Dr. Matthias Riedl
Updated on 11. Dec. 2020

Constant stress is one of the biggest aggravators of irritable bowel syndrome, an intestinal disorder with symptoms that include abdominal pain, a bloated belly and constipation. Learn how the stomach and the psyche influence each other -- and how you can effectively reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome with stress management.

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Table of contents

  1. Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Stress
  2. The Abdominal Brain
  3. Countering IBS with Hypnosis, Meditation and Yoga
    1. Hypnosis To Calm the Bowels
    2. Fighting Intestinal Issues with Yoga
    3. Meditation for IBS
  4. Knowledge To Go

Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Stress

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is an intestinal disorder with numerous uncomfortable and painful symptoms, including flatulence, severe abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation. IBS is often hard to diagnose, and its causes are usually just as hard to grasp. The disease is not based on any recognizable organic triggers; therefore the intestine does not show any pathological changes. It is also unclear why the intestines sometimes act up. 

Doctors suspect that the cause may be disturbances in the intestinal flora or hypersensitivity of the intestinal mucosa. Psyche and digestion are also closely related: many sufferers report that stress aggravates their IBS symptoms. When it’s under pressure, the abdominal brain is inundated with signals and stressors that can cause extensive discomfort. 

The Abdominal Brain

But what is the abdominal brain actually? In the middle of our body there is a control center that is structured similarly to the brain in our head. About 100 million nerve cells surround our intestines; that's more than in the entire spinal cord. Scientists call this huge network the enteric nervous system (ENS), or simply the abdominal brain. Its primary task is to control digestion, and it does this independently of our actual brain, which takes care of everything else. 

The two organs exchange information via the so-called gut-brain axis. The center of the body has more to say to the head than vice versa: around 90 percent of all information goes from the bottom to the top. The ENS reports whether we are full or hungry. Pain and irregularities in the digestive tract are also transmitted upwards. If, for example, toxins get into the intestines, both control centers trigger diarrhea or vomiting. 

Healthy people perceive little dialogue between the gut and the head. In contrast, IBS patients are much more sensitive to this exchange of information. Researchers have found that the abdominal brain and higher brain’s communication are somewhat off track in IBS sufferers. Thus, an irritable bowel constantly nags, even without cause. Often, it is a normal stimulus, but it arrives at the top as pain, which then causes issues in the intestine.

Countering IBS with Hypnosis, Meditation and Yoga

Diet, probiotics and prebiotics all help with irritable bowel syndrome. However alternative therapies aimed at mental health such as intestinal hypnosis, yoga or meditation are also definitely worth a try.

Hypnosis To Calm the Bowels

Hypnosis might get a bad reputation as junk medicine, however numerous studies that indicated that intestinal hypnosis might be an effective therapy for IBS. Some data shows that up to 80 percent of IBS patients received some relief of intestinal hypnosis.

Medical hypnosis puts you into something of a trance state, comparable to the feeling you have just before falling asleep. In this process, imagery adapted to the digestive system is created for the purpose of sedation. For example, there is talk of a slow or fast flowing river. 

Intestinal hypnosis with a psychotherapist causes deep relaxation, in which new healthy connections can form. This can result in signals between the brain and abdominal brain being reinterpreted, and no longer misinterpreted as pain. 

Fighting Intestinal Issues with Yoga

In addition, yoga can also help to restore intestinal calm. Yoga combines meditative components with movement and breathing; no other relaxation technique offers this combination. Conscious breathing has a calming effect on both the body and mind, and alternating between tension and relaxation has also been shown to help lower stress levels. 

Many beginners might find this conscious winding down difficult. Instead, they would rather lace up their jogging shoes and start running after a busy day. While exercise reduces stress in the same way, only yoga also instills the ability to release. And that's exactly what's important for dealing with situations in which you can't run away. In this way, yoga helps you to remain more relaxed in the face of pressure, which in turn benefits the sensitive intestines.

Not all types of yoga and yoga exercises are equally suitable for everyone and should be practiced in an adapted way depending on age and state of health. Beginners are recommended to attend a course. After that, they can continue to practice on their own - preferably on a daily basis.

Meditation for IBS

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is still a little-known therapy option. The concept for stress management was developed in the late 1970s in the U.S, and can be practiced by anyone. MBSR utilizes body awareness tasks in sitting and walking, concentration and attention. In addition, elements of yoga are incorporated throughout the training. The nervous system and the intestinal-brain axis are specifically addressed.

In essence, the applications are about intensively engaging with the moment and not evaluating situations. You learn to become inwardly calmer and more balanced - not only during exercise, but also during stresses and challenges in everyday life. This can help calm irritable bowel syndrome and reduce pain.

Those affected can learn meditation under guidance and then continue it regularly at home. There are also mindfulness exercises to listen to.

Knowledge To Go

Stress and psychologically stressful situations can have a major effect on the stomach. Both can trigger abdominal pain, flatulence or diarrhea, symptoms of IBS. This is related to the abdominal brain, which controls the digestive process, but also constantly reports signals up through the gut-brain axis. In addition to a change in diet, alternative therapies such as intestinal hypnosis, yoga or meditation can help alleviate the suffering.


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