Is There a Link Between COVID Stress and IBS?

written by Skye Sherman - Dec 7, 2020
medically reviewed by Dr. Tolulope Olabintan, MD - Nov 22, 2021

If you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), also known as IBD, you know how uncomfortable and unpleasant this condition is. And you know that the last thing you want to do is trigger your symptoms.

However, did you know there may be a link between your stress level -- whether caused by the COVID-19 pandemic or something else -- and your IBS flaring up? Many people have experienced a resurgence of their IBS in the past several months due to the stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this article, we’ll explore whether there is a link between stress and IBS.

Stressing about COVID may be the root of your tummy troubles

Stress is one of the main triggers of unpleasant physical symptoms like indigestion, nausea, and heartburn. And there’s a scientific reason behind why: there’s a strong connection between the brain and the enteric nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system housed within the walls of the GI tract. These two systems communicate through the spinal cord.

The feeling of stress is caused by a release of the hormone cortisol, which is designed to keep us functioning every day. However, when we experience something stressful, our bodies see a spike in cortisol levels and this malfunction in raised cortisol leads to increased inflammation, which can lead to disease.

According to Michigan Medicine, “Stress-related digestive troubles may be on the rise as people around the globe worry in the midst of a pandemic, experts warn. … In addition to belly pain, stress can trigger a wide range of other gut symptoms including heartburn, nausea, bloating, a change in bowel pattern, or in rare cases, even rectal pain … Patients who already have irritable bowel syndrome, a chronic condition marked by stomach pain, cramping and a change in bowel habits, may see an uptick in their symptoms.”

If you’re stressing out about the pandemic -- as many of us are, especially with the global turmoil and turbulent social climate that has accompanied it -- that may be why you’re experiencing more frequent (and worse) IBS symptoms.

As CBS Sacramento reports, “Stress can make ulcers worse. In fact, it can boost pain, bloating, nausea and other stomach discomfort from nearly every gastrointestinal complaint. … And for people with irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn’s disease, stress can increase their painful symptoms, such as cramping and diarrhea.”

How to lower your stress levels and seek relief from IBS

It makes sense, but that doesn’t necessarily provide relief of your symptoms. You may need to be treated for the IBS separately -- a doctor might choose to put you on a medication like Linzess -- but you should also work to lower your stress levels and seek relief from prolonged feelings of nervousness or anxiety. It’s not just good for your physical health, but your mental and emotional health, too.

Consider practicing meditation, establishing a comforting self-care ritual, exercising daily, and getting ample sleep. You might even want to consider taking up a relaxing hobby like knitting to give yourself something to look forward to and provide mental relief with a calming, low-intensity, low-pressure activity.

By lowering your stress levels and taking back control of your emotional state, you may find that you experience relief from your IBS symptoms as well.

Stress eating, the pandemic, and your IBS

There’s another, related factor that may be contributing to your tummy troubles during the COVID pandemic: stress eating. By reaching more often for comfort foods -- which tend to be higher in sugar and fat, as well as highly processed -- you might be agitating your GI tract even further, triggering or worsening your symptoms.

It’s natural to want to eat foods that give us instant, easy feelings of happiness when we are feeling sad, uncertain, or uncomfortable. But remember that the satisfaction from junk food is only temporary. In the long run, you’re not doing yourself any favors; in fact, you’re causing harm and making life worse for yourself.

Unhealthy eating only adds to your pile of problems, causing weight gain and a host of other problems that affect both your mental and physical health.

As much as possible, stick to a balanced diet and nourish your body with healthy, nutritious foods during the pandemic, especially while battling stress. Refer to the most recent update of the USDA Dietary Guidelines for best practices when it comes to what you eat.

Seek out comfort from healthier places, like constructive activities and healthy foods, rather than bad-for-you treats. Stay active, stay engaged, and practice good breathing techniques to keep your stress levels as low as possible.

The link between your gut microbia and mood may be stronger than you think

The more we learn about our guts and our brains, the more we realize they may be connected. In fact, gut microbia may actually be affecting our moods and emotional states. The bacteria in our guys may actually be affecting our brains and contributing to conditions like depression and anxiety.

According to Discover Magazine, “Mounting evidence suggests that intestinal microbes profoundly shape our thinking and behavior. Human trials are now underway to investigate how these microbes boost our overall well-being. If the results hold up, new bacteria-based therapies could expand a mental health treatment landscape that has been mostly stagnant for decades.”

Eating foods that nourish your gut microbiome may be a good idea. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha are all in this category and studies are suggesting these foods may have anti-depressive effects. Consider adding fermented foods into your diet for a boost of happy.

Is IBS a symptom of COVID?

Did you know that some COVID patients are experiencing gastrointestinal problems as one of the symptoms of the virus? This is an underreported symptom but certainly one that is important to be aware of.

According to the U.S. News & World Report, “About half of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 have digestive symptoms, according to new research on 206 patients with mild disease, released online March 30 in the American Journal of Gastroenterology. In addition, 53% of the study patients with COVID-19 had a positive coronavirus stool test, raising questions about different ways the virus could be transmitted, other than by respiratory droplets, to other people.”

A study was conducted alongside researchers from Wuhan, China, and found that with COVID-19, diarrhea lasts one to 14 days, for about five days on average, and episodes occur about four times a day. Though most people assume the virus is just associated with the respiratory system, in actuality, abdominal pain, diarrhea, appetite loss, nausea, and vomiting can all be symptoms of COVID-19.

Though unpleasant, these complaints may be less urgent than symptoms like shortness of breath -- but it’s still vital to recognize that these symptoms of illness may be indicative of COVID-19 infection.

The good news is that current research does not seem to suggest that patients with GI problems are at greater risk of contracting or suffering greater from COVID-19. However, GI disease patients who are on medications that suppress the immune system could be more vulnerable. In this case it may be best is to stay safe by limiting contact with others and to practice good hygiene.

For most people, taking an immune-boosting supplement is a great idea during quarantine and beyond.



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While the above article is based on thorough research, we do not claim to offer a substitute for medical advice from a qualified healthcare provider. The article was written for information and educational purposes only. We aim to provide helpful information to our readers, but cannot provide a treatment, diagnosis, or consultation of any sort, and we are in no way indicating that any particular drug is safe or appropriate for you and your individual needs. To receive professional medical attention, you must see a doctor.