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Working from home may have helped some people avoid IBS symptoms. Luis Alvarez / Getty Images
  • Some people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) saw improvements in their symptoms during lockdown.
  • While the exact cause of IBS is unknown, stress and anxiety can trigger symptoms in some people. Other triggers include certain foods.
  • Researchers from Argentina found that people with IBS had less severe symptoms during the pandemic than before the pandemic.
  • However, other research found some people with IBS had worsening symptoms.

The pandemic has affected the mental health of millions of people. In the United States alone, half of U.S. adults said stress or worry about the coronavirus negatively impacted their mental health, according to a March 2021 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But for some people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the stay-at-home orders may have offered relief from symptoms such as cramping, abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea, according to a new study.

While the exact cause of IBS is unknown, stress and anxiety can trigger some people’s symptoms. Other triggers include certain foods.

Researchers from Argentina found that people with IBS had less severe symptoms during the pandemic than before the pandemic. They also saw a drop in the percentage of people with IBS.

“We think the results have something to do with people staying at home. They were not exposed to outside stress, and at home they were able to avoid food triggers,” lead study author Dr. Juan Pablo Stefanolo, a gastroenterology physician at Buenos Aires University in Argentina, said in a press release.

The results were presented May 23 at Digestive Disease Week 2021. They have not yet been peer reviewed.

While some people with IBS may have seen improvements in their symptoms during the pandemic, others didn’t fare so well.

Researchers from the University of Washington found that around half of the 55 people they surveyed had increased IBS symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, or constipation during the pandemic.

They also reported higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms.

This study published March 2021 in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology.

It included only people with IBS and anxiety and/or depression, while the Argentinian researchers focused on IBS in general.

“Perhaps individuals with IBS and comorbid anxiety and/or depression have greater symptoms than those with IBS alone,” said lead author Kendra J. Kamp, PhD, RN, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Other factors could explain the differences between the two studies, including the stage of the pandemic and what was happening in a person’s community at the time of the survey.

“It is possible that symptoms vary over time and/or differ based on COVID-19 restrictions or knowledge of COVID-19,” Kamp said.

She and her colleagues surveyed people with IBS between May and August 2020, when “there were still a lot of unknowns about COVID-19,” she said. The Argentinian researchers didn’t specify when during the pandemic they collected the data.

Dr. Kirsten Tillisch, a gastroenterologist at UCLA Health, has seen a mix of responses from people with IBS during the pandemic.

“Early in the pandemic, I saw that people who were able to stay home and avoid the risk of the virus felt a sense of relief and greater control of their lives,” she said.

“Those who had to continue to go to work — healthcare workers, police, and firefighters, and other essential workers — tended to have flare-ups because COVID-19 added an additional stressor,” Tillisch said.

Both the University of Washington and the Argentinian study looked at stress levels in people with IBS, but the connection between the two isn’t always clear.

“Some people have a clear onset of symptoms or symptom flares following intense and persistent life stress, things like divorce, job stresses, or lawsuits,” Tillisch said. “And some don’t notice an interaction between stress and their symptoms at all, though this is less common.”

Complicating matters, especially from a research standpoint, is that what is stressful for one person may not be stressful for another.

Still, research shows that activities that relieve stress can also help with IBS symptoms in some people.

A 2020 study by Tillisch and her colleagues found that people with IBS who learned mindfulness-based stress reduction saw improvements in their symptoms.

This practice, often taught as an 8-week course, uses a mix of mindfulness meditation, yoga, and body awareness to help people focus their attention.

“My patients who had implemented a mindfulness practice prior to the pandemic found that they were able to use it to calm the mind and stay in the moment when the world around us was full of uncertainty,” Tillisch said.

“Similarly, movement-based strategies like yoga, which many people were able to do even more often at home, allowed them to be more grounded,” she added.

Over the summer and fall, more people will be returning to work, school, and social activities, which could be stressful for some people with IBS.

Tillisch offers advice on how to make this transition a little easier.

“Acknowledge that it is normal to have worries getting back to usual activities,” she said, “and accept that it might take some time to feel comfortable with things that you were comfortable with in the past.”

She also recommends that people check in with their doctor if symptoms are flaring up.

In addition, people should look for tools they can use to manage their symptoms, Tillisch said.

This might include setting a regular schedule for sleep and mealtimes, or looking at what worked in the past, such as medications, dietary changes, or talking with a mental health professional.

And find ways to relieve stress, Tillisch said. “If you haven’t implemented a stress reduction plan, do that as soon as possible,” she said.

“It can be meditation, yoga, or many other things. The key is finding something that lets the body and mind calm down — so just watching TV or reading a book doesn’t usually do the trick.”