Why Does Stress Influence Irritable Bowel Inflammation?

A recent study in the scientific journal Nature demonstrated the influence of stress on inflammation, highlighting its role in the development of digestive problems and irritable bowel syndrome.

person with stomach pain

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LatinAmerican Post | María Fernanda Ramírez Ramos

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Leer en español: ¿Por qué el estrés influye en la inflamación del colon irritable?

Stress is the body's natural response to challenging situations, but its impact on health goes beyond what is perceived at first sight. In particular, it has been found that chronic stress can have negative consequences on the digestive system and, more specifically, on the colon. Nowadays, many people suffer from irritable bowel disease, and knowing which situations or foods trigger their annoying symptoms is difficult.

A recent study published in Nature delved into the relationship between stress and inflammation in the colon, providing new insights into the underlying mechanisms. In this article, we explore the findings of this research and will discuss why stress triggers inflammation in the colon, as well as the implications this has for our digestive health.

Understanding this link is critical to effectively addressing stress-associated gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel. In addition, we will share some management recommendations that promote a healthy gut balance.

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The Neural Connection Between the Brain and Gut

The microbiologist of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Christop Thaiss, decided to go against the usual treatments for colon irritation since these methods completely ignored the relationship between intestinal inflation and the psychological state of a person. This new research has discovered why stress can seriously worsen a pathology in the digestive system, especially the well-known irritable colon.

According to this recent study, the pathway linking the brain and the gut starts with chemical signals generated in the brain and ends in immune cells in the gut. When we experience episodes of stress, the brain signals the adrenal glands, which release chemicals known as glucocorticoids throughout the body. Previously, it was believed that these glucocorticoids directly impacted immune cells, thus triggering inflammation, but scientists discovered that there is an intermediate layer to this story.

It turns out that glucocorticoids act on neurons in the gut and on glial cells, which establish neural connections. These glial cells emit molecules that stimulate the activation of immune cells, which in turn causes painful inflammation in the gut. In addition, glucocorticoids also affect the full development of intestinal neurons, producing low levels of signaling molecules for the intestinal muscles. This slows down food movement through the digestive system, aggravating inflammatory bowel disease symptoms.

Interestingly, glucocorticoids are sometimes used to treat these diseases, but this research reveals a contradiction. Although they can have anti-inflammatory effects in short bursts, when stress becomes chronic, glucocorticoids take on a pro-inflammatory role. This means that controlling stress levels may profoundly impact the effectiveness of treatments for inflammatory bowel diseases.

Tips for Managing Stress and Relieving Symptoms

According to the Nature study, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are the two main pathologies in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). In addition, fatigue, diarrhea, and abdominal pain are the most common signs in patients suffering from these calamities.​​​​​​​

For this reason, here are some tips you can apply to your life to maintain the stable health of your digestive system.

  • Explore yourself and become familiar with your condition: Acquiring knowledge about what troubles us gives us a sense of control. Embrace your feelings, recognize your limits, and value your outstanding talents. Undoubtedly, there are aspects of yourself that you enjoy.

  • Saying "No" is also an answer: Learning to set limits will always be valid since agreeing to commitments you don't want to make can cause stress. So, if you decide to take this advice and start saying no to any situation that may affect you, it will positively change your mood and physical health.

  • Accept everything you can't control: It's normal to want to control everything, but it's technically impossible. So, to lead a calmer and healthier life, you must focus on improving every aspect of your life that you can change: your attitude, lifestyle, and thoughts.

  • Relate with your loved ones frequently: Humans are naturally social beings, and isolating and keeping our anxieties to ourselves can only bring stress and anxiety. For this reason, you must interact with your friends and family so that you can share your emotions. You will see how this social dynamic can bring great results to your daily life.

  • Practice a hobby: Most people are accustomed to performing activities for obligation, not pleasure. This can bring consequences of unhappiness and, of course, severe diseases in our bodies. So, doing an activity that relaxes you, such as reading, meditating, playing an instrument, or practicing a sport, can help you maintain a healthy mind and digestive system.

  • Eat healthily: Finally, we could only close this article by reminding you how vital it is to eat healthy since eating junk food will only take away your energy and, over time, can bring you serious health problems, such as being overweight and poor digestion. So, we recommend you frequently eat organic fruits and vegetables that provide enough nutrients to your body and mind. Several foods should be avoided for irritable bowel syndrome because they are heavy or irritating.

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