Around 15 percent of Americans—more than two-thirds of them women—frequently experience abdominal pain and bloating, discomfort, and diarrhea of constipation, a cluster of symptoms known as irritable bowel syndrome. Sometimes, the bloating is so severe that there is actual distension, a visible swelling in the abdominal region. People with irritable bowel syndrome are especially prone to severe heartburn known as gastroesophageal reflux, and some studies suggest that as many as 60 percent have anxiety, depression, or a similar psychological problem.
It’s not clear what causes irritable bowel syndrome to develop, though there is some evidence that abnormal serotonin levels are related to digestive problems—the depression isn’t entirely a result of irritable bowel. The condition seems to run in families, suggesting the possibility of a genetic component. Stress is another factor; as with the relationship of irritable bowel syndrome and depression, the condition is both stressful in itself and can make people more sensitive to stressful or anxiety-provoking situations, and moreover stress—from that or from other sources—may be a factor in causing the condition, or may be a factor in triggering a flare-up. Stress and anxiety may also make flare-ups subjectively, and perhaps actually, worse, by making the sufferer more aware of disturbances.
In addition, stress hormones such as cortisol can have a direct effect on the digestive system, causing abdominal pain. Other stress chemicals can throw off the balance of gut microflora, harmless or beneficial bacteria living in the intestines that are supposed to aid in digestion. What this means is that minimizing stressful situations, when possible, may help people prone to intestinal bowel syndrome symptoms to avoid pain and digestive problems.
That’s why stress-reduction techniques such as relaxation exercises are recommended for people with a problem with irritable bowels. Moreover, for people who do get flare-ups from stress, probiotics, as supplements or in foods such as yogurt, can help reduce or eliminate symptoms. Even for people who don’t have flare-ups as a result of stress, probiotics can help. The encourage the growth of these good bacteria, and that can help maintain digestive health.