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 Lackner.
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 miserable.
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."