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Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a condition of inflammation of the digestive tract. The two main forms of IBD are Crohn’s disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis (UC). Common symptoms of IBD include diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fatigue. The goals of treatment for IBD are to manage the disease, reduce symptoms, and improve quality of life.

What is the relationship between stress and inflammatory bowel disease?

There have been a number of clinical studies done on the correlation between stress and IBD symptom flare ups.1-4 According to some most recent studies, there is no direct proof that stress will induce, or aggravate, symptoms. There are some reports of people with IBD experiencing symptom flare ups during very stressful times, but there is no evidence that stress is a direct cause of the flare up, or of someone having the disease itself. Most people with IBD will at times experience stress due to their symptoms. Reducing stress will generally have a positive impact on a person’s quality of life. For some people, reducing stress may even contribute to making their IBD symptoms more manageable.

5 ways to help deal with stress:

1. Breathe

Breathing is something we all do all day without ever thinking about it. However, taking time to sit down and do a little conscious breathing can be a great way to reduce stress. Find a quiet place to sit comfortably and simply take a few slow breaths. A good way to stay focused on your breath is to count as you inhale and exhale. Try to make each inhale and exhale last for a slow count of 5: the slower the better. You may want to do this for three breaths or for 5 minutes. Just sit for as long as you need until you feel some tension release.

2. Practice Yoga

Getting into yoga is a great way to reduce and/or manage stress. Yoga combines conscious breathing with movement. Bending and stretching can help to relieve stress being held in the body while conscious breathing can help to relieve stress in the mind. Whether it’s in a class at a studio or at home in front of your computer, yoga can be helpful for many people.

3. Break a sweat

Even if yoga isn’t right for you, it is important for people with IBD to be as active as they can during times when their disease and symptoms permits them to be. Exercise helps to build endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that can help to manage stress. Of course, if a person is in a terrible flare or experiencing other symptoms, exercise can be taken off the table and then returned to when a person’s health is more stable.

4. Meditate

Meditation does not mean turning your mind off, that is simply impossible. Meditating is just taking time to sit in a quiet place for a period of time to observe the mind. It can be extremely relaxing and a great way to reduce stress.

5. Keep a journal

For some, being able to express themselves is a good way to relieve stress. One way to do this is by keeping a journal or diary. This allows for an expressive outlet and can be a great way to help deal with stress-causing patterns.

Written by: Anna Nicholson and Emily Downward | Last Reviewed: January 2018.
  1. Ananthakrishnan AN. Environmental Triggers for Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Curr Gastroenterol Rep 2013 January;15(1): 302
  2. Boye B et al. INSPIRE study: does stress management improve the course of inflammatory bowel disease and disease-specific quality of life in distressed patients with ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease? A randomized controlled trial. Inflamm Bowel Dis 2011 Sep;17(9):1863-73.
  3. Targownik LE et al. The Relationship Among Perceived Stress, Symptoms, and Inflammation in Persons With Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Am J Gastroenterol 2015 Jul;110(7):1001-12;quiz 1013. doi: 10.1038/ajg.2015.147. Epub 2015 Jun 16.
  4. Singh S et al. Common Symptoms and Stressors Among Individuals With Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology 2011;9:769–775.