Overview

If you have ulcerative colitis, you may notice a flare-up of your symptoms when you experience a stressful event. This isn’t in your head. Stress is one of the factors that contribute to a colitis flare-up, along with tobacco smoking habits, diet, and your environment.

Ulcerative colitis is an autoimmune disease that affects the large intestine (also known as your colon). This disease occurs when the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells in the colon. This overactive immune system causes inflammation in the colon, leading to ulcerative colitis. Stress provokes a similar response.

It’s possible to manage symptoms of ulcerative colitis and relieve flare-ups with treatment. However, your ability to manage symptoms of ulcerative colitis may depend on how well you manage stress.

Can stress cause ulcerative colitis?

Your body deals with stressful events by launching a fight-or-flight response. This is a natural reaction to stress that prepares your body to flee a high-risk situation or tackle a perceived threat.

During this response, a few things happen:

  • your body releases a stress hormone called cortisol
  • your blood pressure and heart rate increase
  • your body increases its production of adrenaline, which gives you energy

This response also stimulates your immune system. This usually isn’t a negative reaction, but it can be a problem if you have ulcerative colitis. A stimulated immune system leads to increased inflammation throughout your body, including your colon. This increase is usually temporary, but it can still trigger an ulcerative colitis flare-up.

In a study from 2013, researchers looked for relapses in 60 people with inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis) in remission. Of the 42 participants who had a relapse, 45 percent had experienced stress the day before their flare-up.

Although stress can be responsible for triggering a flare-up of symptoms, stress is currently not thought to cause ulcerative colitis. Instead, researchers think stress exacerbates it. The exact cause of ulcerative colitis is unknown, but some people have a greater risk for developing this condition. This includes people under the age of 30 or people who are of late middle age and people with a family history of ulcerative colitis.

See the effects of stress on the body »

Coping with stress and ulcerative colitis

To reduce ulcerative colitis flare-ups, it isn’t always enough to take your medication(s) and stick with your doctor’s treatment plan. It’s can also be helpful to find ways to lower your stress level. Here are some strategies to help you manage stress:

  1. Meditate: Try one of the best meditation apps of the year if you’re not sure where to start.
  2. Do yoga: All you need is a little space to stretch out. Here’s a starting sequence.
  3. Try biofeedback: You can ask your doctor about biofeedback. This nondrug therapy can teach you how to control your bodily functions. As a result, you learn how to lower your heart rate and release muscle tension when under stress.
  4. Take care of yourself: Self-care is an important factor in reducing stress. Make sure you get at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Learning how to say no can also reduce stress. When you accept too many responsibilities, you can become overwhelmed and stressed.
  5. Exercise: Exercise prompts your brain to release neurotransmitters that affect your mood and help relieve depression and anxiety. Exercise also has an anti-inflammatory effect. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity at least three to five times a week.

Keep reading: 10 simple ways to relieve stress »