Irritable Bowel Syndrome
By Janis Graham
Some things just hit you in the gut: Rumors are heating up in your office
that there are going to be more layoffs, or the principal calls (your eighth
grader is acting up again), and your belly suddenly tightens. You may even need
to dash to the bathroom. "The gut and bowel are very sensitive to stress,"
explains Jeffrey M. Lackner, Psy.D., director of the Behavioral Medicine Clinic
at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine. When tense, your body is
flooded with adrenaline and other hormones, which can set your tummy churning
and trigger the intestines to suddenly empty. Or the opposite may happen: "For
some, stress slows down digestion, leading to pain and constipation," says
If these upsets get you only once in a while, it's easy to write them off as
small annoyances. You may want to reach for an OTC medicine — Pepto-Bismol,
Imodium — if diarrhea is disrupting your life. Ditto if stress causes
uncomfortable constipation — try Colace or Phillips'. And while you can't
always control the things that cause turmoil in your tummy, you can learn to
tame your response to them. Especially effective: controlled breathing and
progressive muscle relaxation.
But for as many as one in seven women, it's not so simple. Pain, gas,
bloating, and diarrhea or constipation hit frequently or for long stretches —
or both. Stress doesn't cause these symptoms, which are known as
irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but tension can make them worse. You won't die
from IBS or suffer serious health consequences, but it can make life
Melissa Brunner of Cheektowaga, NY, knows all about it. Now 35, she was in
college when she had her first flare-up — an episode of severe diarrhea and
terrible stomach pain that lasted for three months. Her doctor ordered a series
of tests, which all turned up normal, at which point he diagnosed IBS. As for
treatment, "he told me there was nothing I could do about it," she says.
For the next dozen years, IBS dominated Brunner's life. She often passed up
on dining out with friends for fear she might not make it to a restroom in
time: "The cramping sometimes came out of nowhere. I could be shopping, then
suddenly doubled over in pain, trying to get a grip so I could reach the
ladies' room." Then, about two years ago, Brunner found help at the Behavioral
Medicine Clinic at the University at Buffalo and was able to reduce symptoms
through behavioral techniques and stress management, along with diet changes.
Today she pronounces herself "85 percent cured."