The Link Between Stress and Ulcerative Colitis

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on February 20, 2024
2 min read

There’s no evidence stress causes ulcerative colitis (UC). But if you have UC, you probably already know it can worsen your symptoms or bring on a flare. Here’s what we found.

Experts haven’t found an exact link. But they have some theories about the connection between the two.

Inflammation. Your body goes into fight-or-flight mode when stressed. That triggers the release of lots of chemicals, including cytokines. Those are molecules that turn on your immune system and lead to inflammation. People with UC might be more sensitive to this process.

Brain-gut axis. Stress changes the signals that travel between your brain and gut. This can cause all kinds of digestion problems, even in people who don’t have UC. These changes are also linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), food allergies, and heartburn.

Other reasons. Research shows stress might:

  • Damage the lining of your gut
  • Disturb gut bacteria
  • Change how fast or slow your digestive muscles work
  • Make your gut more sensitive to pain

You can’t get rid of stress entirely. But you can learn to manage it. And studies show you can boost your quality of life when you take care of your mental health.

Ask your doctor for extra help if you’re not sure where to start. They can set you up with a counselor or health psychologist who works with people who have IBD.

They might suggest:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Acceptance therapy
  • Deep breathing
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Guided imagery

You can also just take a little time each day to do something you find relaxing. That could be gardening, reading, or listening to music. Whatever you enjoy.

Drug therapy is another option. Studies show antidepressants might ease pain in people with IBD. Common choices include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs). Ask your doctor if they’re right for you.

UC can make everyday things a little harder. For example, you may worry about going out to eat or finding a bathroom when you’re away from home.

You might also be embarrassed to bring up your symptoms. But it’s important to talk about what’s bothering you. Connecting with people in the IBD community who understand what you’re going through can help.

Ask your doctor or social worker if there are IBD support groups in your area. You can also search for one-on-one or group support in-person or online.