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Experts say psychological stress can produce gastrointestinal issues. FG Trade/Getty Images
  • Researchers say psychological stress can produce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • They say the research could lead to new treatments for IBS.
  • Experts say it’s possible to manage IBS symptoms with lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise.

The link between stress and gastrointestinal distress is well known.

The Italian word “agita,” for example, means a feeling of anxiety or agitation, but it is also derived from the word for “heartburn.”

Now, a new study finds that stress can cause far more than an upset stomach.

Researchers from the Tokyo University of Science reported that mice subjected to psychological stress developed symptoms similar to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition that includes a cluster of related gastrointestinal problems that can include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.

“For many years mental health professionals like myself have been aware of the ‘gut-brain axis,’ which refers to the belief that prolonged psychological stress can create intestinal conditions that are experienced as similar to IBS,” Dr. Faisal Tai, a psychiatrist with PsychPlus, told Healthline. “This study demonstrates for the first time using animals that certain types of psychological stress alone can cause IBS-like symptoms.”

Dr. Mark E. Tanchel, a gastroenterologist at Gastroenterology Associates of New Jersey, told Healthline that “individuals who experience symptoms of IBS are more likely to report a history of stress than those without IBS, even though a specific link has not been definitively established.”

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, reported that “chronic vicarious social defeat stress” (cVSDS) — a form of imposed psychological stress — was linked to higher intestinal transit ratio and visceral pain-related behaviors in mice.

Both conditions are considered hallmarks of IBS.

The IBS-like symptoms persisted a month after the imposed stress ended, researchers reported. Symptoms were relieved when mice were given a traditional Japanese herbal medicine called keishikashakuyakuto, known to relieve IBS symptoms.

Psychological stress was induced by forcing test animals to witness physical aggression for 10 minutes per day for 10 consecutive days.

Researchers reported that the mice subjected to psychological stress suffered more gastrointestinal distress than a control group of mice that were not subjected to stress.

On the other hand, mice that were directly subjected to physical stress also did not have the IBS symptoms experienced by the mice that were forced to witness physical aggression but were not physically attacked themselves.

“We’ve long thought that the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are implicated in gut motility and see corresponding changes when we use medicines that alter serotonin and dopamine,” Kathryn Werner, a physician’s assistant and wellness practitioner with a background in treating gastrointestinal disorders, told Healthline.

“We also know that there are huge numbers of receptors for serotonin in the gut, likely more than there are in the brain. The microbiome in the gut also produces lots of serotonin. So anything that can disrupt serotonin, such as stress, can affect how our gut functions,” she added.

Researchers assessed stress levels in mice by measuring cortisol levels and other indicators.

“Cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, rises in response to stress and anxiety,” said Dr. Onyx Adegbola, a physician who founded Casa de Sante, which provides interventions for IBS.

“High cortisol levels can induce colon spasms that are more commonly felt as stomach cramps, which are the most common IBS symptom,” she told Healthline. “People living with IBS show elevated levels of cortisol even right after waking up, compared to non-IBS patients. This means that people who experience chronic stress are more prone to getting more frequent stomach cramps due to IBS.”

The findings from the Japanese study could point the way to new therapies for stress-induced gastrointestinal problems, experts said.

“I believe this could be a clear step toward a better understanding of the relationship between the gut and the brain, and could indeed result in designing better treatments for IBS and perhaps even for stress-related conditions,” said Tai.

People who experience IBS-like symptoms related to stress can take steps to address their gastrointestinal distress and its underlying cause.

“Identifying and working to resolve underlying stressors which may contribute to gastrointestinal symptoms is important,” said Tanchel. “This may be done through lifestyle changes to reduce stress, such as regular exercise, healthy eating, finding a balance between work and other activities, getting enough sleep, and seeking mental health support if needed.

“There are a variety of natural treatments to support gut health such as diets (low FODMAP), fiber supplements, probiotics, and herbal remedies such as peppermint oil,” he added. “Prescription drugs to treat IBS can include antispasmodics and or anti-depressants, which are used to manage pain.”