For the past 15 years of treating IBD and IBS patients, probably the most frequently asked question is “How did I get this?” Interestingly enough, this question is usually followed up with a full answer from the patient which involves their detailed diet, exercise regime, medication, and even genetics – yet none of these seem to provide a satisfying answer.
Medically speaking, what I’ve learned from countless encounters with patients is that there is no one cause of disease or flare. Each individual has their own story on how they developed their condition, and what induces remission and relapses in their symptoms, so it’s very difficult to pinpoint the root of the issue. Having said that, I’ve gained insight into another important piece of the picture.
Most of us underestimate the impact stress has on our physiology. It makes sense that this is the case since stress (internal and external) is much more difficult to measure. We each experience external events subjectively and express our internal currents individually. But we are also unaware of many stressors that affect us constantly and how they impact our physiology.
For instance, nearly all of us are constantly exposed to environmental stressors in the forms of air pollution, cell phone radiation, noise, food, and additives such as emulsifiers and pesticides. All of these can induce a reaction from our immune system and activation of our sympathetic nervous system causing a physiological fight or flight state.
Since these are “undercover” influences, we tend not to take them into account as stressors at all. When you add to these the many psychological stressors such as work deadlines, an upcoming exam, or the occasional world economic or pandemic potential armageddon, you’ll have enough on your hands to be well… just stressed out.
But what happens to us when we become stressed out? One thing that happens is that all these stressful energies need to find a way out. If we don’t find a way to balance them, they implode internally in our bodies. One of the main targets of this implosion is the digestive system because of the huge and complicated neurological connection between the brain and the gut known as the Brain-Gut Axis.
This can cause anything from motility disorders as seen in IBS, causing abdominal pain and irregular bowel movements, to an inflammatory process in the intestinal mucosa such as happens in a Crohn’s disease flare-up. Another effect of stress is the state of emotional and mental instability which we call anxiety. A main part of anxiety is the exhaustion of our emotional and mental capacity to adapt to stress. These two factors together are, in my experience, the main cause of exacerbation in IBS and IBD.
Conventional medicine is only now starting to acknowledge the true impact of stress on patients. Traditional medicine has always seen the emotional/mental and physical aspects of our being as completing each other and has passed down a range of tools for managing or relieving stress.
Many of these have been validated in clinical trials, including meditation, breathwork, practices such as yoga or tai chi, and herbal remedies like ashwagandha and chamomile. By integrating these tools into our daily lifestyle, we can better manage the effects of daily stress on our physiology and reduce exasperated symptoms, flare-ups, and the risk of relapse.