The Relationship Between PTSD and IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)

Severe morning stomach pain
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At first glance, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may not seem to have any special connection. However, PTSD and IBS often occur together. If you have PTSD, IBS, or both, understanding how they're connected can help you seek out the most appropriate treatment.

Understanding Irritable Bowel Syndrome

IBS is a digestive disorder that's more common than you may think.

Here are some statistics:

  • Between 25 and 45 million Americans have IBS
  • Ten percent to 15 percent of people worldwide have IBS
  • IBS is more common among women; 2 out of 3 sufferers are female
  • Most people who have IBS are under 50 years old

People with IBS have chronic abdominal pain and major problems with bowel function such as urgent diarrhea, chronic constipation, or, at different times, both. IBS appears to stem from a malfunction in how the intestines work; however, this malfunction is not well understood or easily detected.

The causes of IBS are not completely understood either, but there is evidence connecting IBS with certain mental health problems. For example, compared to people without IBS, people with IBS are more likely to have mood and anxiety disorders. The mental health problems occur first, then the IBS, suggesting that having any of these problems may increase your risk of developing IBS.

PTSD and IBS

If you have PTSD, you'll be interested to learn that anxiety disorders, particularly PTSD, are the mental health problems most likely to occur before IBS. In fact, there's a strong link between stress and IBS. People who have IBS also seem to have higher rates of exposure to traumatic events.

For example, one recent study of 21,264 urban African Americans found that 8.2 percent had IBS, with nearly 82 percent of those female. The study also found a strong association between PTSD and IBS: African Americans with IBS are twice as likely to also have PTSD.

Another study of women veterans with and without IBS found that 22 percent of the women with IBS also had PTSD compared to 11 percent of the women who didn't.

Why Traumatic Events and PTSD Lead to IBS

It's not clear why traumatic events and PTSD can lead to IBS, but it's likely that chronic stress from a traumatic event or PTSD can harm your digestive system.

In PTSD, your body's "fight or flight" response is frequently activated, releasing a substance in the brain called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). Among other things, CRF increases mucus and water secretion in your colon and disrupts colon motility (speed of muscle contraction). It's likely, then, that high levels of CRF contribute to the development of IBS in people with PTSD.

The Benefits of Treating PTSD and IBS

If you have PTSD and IBS, the stress of having PTSD can make your IBS symptoms worse—and vice versa. Fortunately, treating your PTSD may also improve your IBS.

One of the most effective treatments for PTSD is exposure therapy and other options are also available. If you're looking for a PTSD treatment provider, a number of websites can help you connect with providers in your area.

Sources:

Harvard Health Publishing. Stress and the Sensitive Gut. Harvard Medical School. Published August 2010.

International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Facts About IBS. Updated November 24, 2016.

Iorio N, Makipour K, Palit A, Friedenberg FK. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Is Associated With Irritable Bowel Syndrome in African AmericansJournal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility. 2014;20(4):523-530. doi:10.5056/jnm14040.

White DL, Savas LS, Daci K, et al. (2010). Trauma History and Risk of the Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Women Veterans. Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics. 2010;32(4):551-561.  doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2036.2010.04387.x.