Is Stress Making Your Inflammatory Bowel Disease Worse?

Is there a link between stress and Inflammatory Bowel Disease? How? Why? What do we do about it? Although stress levels do not cause IBD it certainly impacts the aggression of it. Ask any IBD patient if their disease is worse when they are stressed or going through a difficult time. The answer will almost always be ‘yes’. Stress does some nasty things to the human body. Headaches. Stomach ulcers. Fatigue. Heart problems. Onset of new illnesses. The list goes on. But why? What the heck does stress have anything to do with the way my bowels function?

Firstly, stress isn’t actually what causes harm to your body. Built up stress does. Stress is normal. The amount that we hold in is not normal. There is a fight-or-flight reaction that comes naturally to all of us. Your blood pressure rises and muscles get tense for a few minutes. Then you chill out and all is well. However, most of our average stressors linger. You can’t fight or flight credit card debt, a divorce, workplace demands, or traffic. If your body continues to be stressed with no release it will continue to react to the fight-or-flight situation. Then there is a build up of stress.

Well you didn’t fight or fly so… what happens? After the initial incident your adrenaline is lower but you might still be thinking about it and worrying over it. In that case, your body is still creating corticosteroids (stress = cortisol) that are above normal. This leads to the breakdown of important bodily responsibilities ultimately leading to a suppressed immune system. (Life event, Stress, and Illness)

There are two ways stress can limit the body’s function; directly and indirectly. Here’s what I mean.

Direct effects of stress on your body are things like headache, insomnia, and muscle tension. When you have built up stress your body reacts to it in ways such as over-stimulated nerve cells expanding and causing headaches. Or when too much cortisol (the stress hormone) creates the inability to produce the balanced sleep hormones (melatonin).

Indirect effects of stress result from other lifestyle changes you make when you’re stressed. For example; lack of sleep, bouts of irritability, poor eating habits/emotional eating, and more. What I mean by this is stress may not necessarily directly cause you to gain weight. It causes you to eat poorly which causes you to gain weight – an indirect effect of stress. In addition the lack of sleep could be simply from overthinking a problem at home or lifestyle changes and not necessarily all from direct high cortisol levels.


Research has shown something iffy in the cell of the intestinal mucosa, aka your guts, in IBD patients. Believe it or not there’s an anti-stress mechanism in everyone’s cells. Cool, right? Well it would be cool as long as that mechanism does its job. If not, proteins form incorrectly in the cells. Therefore the body can’t manage the balance of gut bacteria. When the cells get all tweaked out that can lead to inflammation. Thanks, crappy cells. Way to not do your job while I’m stressed out! So those of us with IBD who are stressed feel the effects of inflammation more.

Granted, some of this information was collected from research on a mouse. I am not a mouse. You are not a mouse. But I do think this is cool research. We should be lucky to have constant research for Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Have you seen the number of clinical trials? There are many more diseases with giant question marks lingering over them. So, even though there is SO MUCH to discover about IBD there are plenty of people with diseases/cancers who have no proper way to manage their illness. I do not mean to minimize our disease but I do like to keep my glass half full. Join me for a moment in appreciating how far research has come. I am grateful that this disease gets the attention it has, although there is MAJOR room for improvement and advocacy, the topic of discussion is much more open than years ago. With that said, stop stressing. It’s bad for your intestinal mucosa. 😉


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