- How does stress affect our digestion?
- Where does the body store trauma?
- Why does past trauma increase your risk for IBS?
- What can you do if you think trauma caused your IBS?
It’s such a cruel statistic. Children who are abused or impoverished are more likely to experience numerous health problems when they grow up. Histories of trauma, sexual abuse, maternal neglect – they all get wrapped up in a category called “Early Life Adversities,” or ELA. And if you faced adversity while growing up, your risk for irritable bowel syndrome increases two- to four-fold.
Although IBS affects 12-15% of adults, doctors still can’t explain what causes this troubling disorder. In part, that’s because irritable bowel syndrome only describes your symptoms – and a great number of different problems can manifest as the same symptoms. However, the startling connection between childhood trauma, PTSD, and IBS has led scientists to ask this question: How can early life adversity lead to IBS?
This article explains how childhood traumas are physically stored by our bodies, what scientists have learned about the mind-body connection’s role in gut health, and how this could impact your IBS treatment.
The mind-body connection
Western medicine is just catching up to what natural healers have been saying all along: Our bodies and minds are intricately connected and constantly influence each other. Whether or not you even believe in a mind-body connection, an IBS diagnosis will likely push you to explore the complex relationship between your physical and emotional wellbeing.
Scientists now have undisputable evidence supporting the mind-body connection. The most famous example of this connection is the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) which your body uses to convert emotional stress into physical hormones like cortisol, the infamous “stress hormone.”
Cortisol is a messenger that tells countless bodily functions to either speed up or pump the brakes. It increases your blood sugar, suppresses your immune system, and even halts bone formation. And because your brain is the boss of this messenger, countless experiments have shown that you can consciously lower your cortisol levels through breathing exercises, low-impact physical exercise, and listening to music – to name a few.
The mind-body connection is especially important to your digestion – where it’s called the gut-brain axis. Although this two-way relationship is incredibly complex, cortisol has an important role as messenger here as well. Within your digestive tract, stress influences:
- The speed of food passage
- The gut microbiome
- The sensation of visceral pain
- Intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”)
All these impacts are why people – even those without irritable bowel syndrome – can experience indigestion and stomach pain after stressful events and emotional trauma.
Stress reduction for symptom reduction
As much as everyone likes to vilify cortisol, the stress response is also essential to our survival. Life is full of moments where the “fight-or-flight” response is actually quite helpful. Normally, our bodies should be able to detect when threats come and go – and react by switching this response on and off. But unfortunately, research indicates that this response is often hyperactive in IBS patients – which converts small amounts of stress into large bursts of cortisol.
The roots of irritable bowel syndrome extend way beyond the HPA axis, but this could explain how stressful events can trigger IBS flare-ups. This is also why relaxation techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy and stress-reducing activities can be especially helpful for people with IBS.
In fact, some IBS studies could practically predict how intense patients’ symptoms would be based on their stress levels. One study that measured patients’ stress and symptoms over time found that increased stress was associated with worse symptoms one- to two-weeks later. But the good news is that there are many options available to help you manage your stress levels if your body has become hypersensitized to stress.
That said, some of life’s stresses are beyond our control. Another study which followed IBS patients for 16 months found that major stressful events – divorce, losing a house, business failure, etc. – at the beginning of the study were associated with worse symptoms a full year later.
Learning stress-reduction techniques and having an emotional support network in place can help buffer the negative impact of what life throws at you. But be realistic about your expectations: No matter how effective your supports are, you will occasionally be thrown off balance by life’s hardships. Don’t give up on your supports just because your symptoms are flaring up.
How does the mind-body connection relate to past traumas?
But what if the stressful period of your life is many years behind you – decades, even. Do your IBS symptoms imply you haven’t “gotten over” your trauma?
Not at all. The mind-body connection can store trauma within our bodies as physical changes. And unlike what some suggest, a true emotional release does not always guarantee that your body will also be able to “let go.” I absolutely believe in physical healing through emotional healing, especially when our trauma is stored as a muscular pattern – like a defensive body posture or clenched jaw.
However, many people find that irritable bowel syndrome is a lifelong diagnosis, even after releasing their childhood traumas. Meanwhile, some people can resolve their symptoms without unraveling their pasts. To understand why this is, it’s important to know how our bodies can store trauma – outside of our brains:
- Epigenetics: Childhood adversity can become stored in your DNA epigenetically. This modification doesn’t change your genes, but it does control when your genes are turned on and off – which is a very powerful feature. Trauma’s epigenetic impact might be especially damaging to two important systems: the immune system and the HPA axis (cortisol stress response). Epigenetic changes to your cortisol response could throw off your body’s ability to respond to normal amounts of stress. Meanwhile, epigenetic changes to your immune system could account for chronic low-level inflammation and immune system disorders often seen in people who experienced childhood adversity.
- Gut microbiome: Your digestive tract houses a giant community of microbes that all work together to keep you healthy. This diverse collection of microbes is unique to each person, almost like a thumbprint or second genetic code – except it can change over time. The microbiome influences everything from your immune system to your psychological state. Unfortunately, early life stress can shift the types of bacteria that live in your microbiome, which can have a life-long impact. Imbalanced microbiomes could lead to inflammation, leaky gut, food intolerances, pain sensitivity and worse.
These types of changes aren’t on/off switches and they’re not burdens your body can easily release. Instead, these changes are more like a heavy train that has been sent down the wrong track. If you want to send it in the right direction, you’ll have to be gentle and patient. That’s why many people suffering from IBS try comprehensive treatment plans that include stress reduction, fiber, probiotics, and a trial-and-error diet that avoids trigger foods.
Experiments linking trauma to IBS
Nobody should traumatize a child on purpose. This is obvious. But it also means researchers only use surveys, not experiments, to link childhood trauma to irritable bowel syndrome. However, rodents are often traumatized – and worse – for the sake of science. If you’re an animal lover and already worried about what I’m going to say next, you might want to skip ahead to the next section.
Scientists have recently begun to understand the different ways that irritable bowel syndrome affects our bodies. IBS often comes with changes in your gut microbiome, chronic low-grade inflammation, and “leaky gut,” in addition to increased pain. Surprisingly, when researchers traumatize baby rats (through adverse early life experiences), the rats grow up with IBS symptoms and these same physical changes.
What types of childhood trauma cause IBS in rats? The following scenarios were devised by researchers to mimic the types of trauma that are linked to human IBS:
- Maternal separation/neglect – In this experiment, baby rats were separated from their mothers for three hours every day, who started to treat them with less care when reunited. When the baby rats grew up, they were hypersensitive to colorectal pain. Stressful situations increased this sensitivity, along with increasing fecal output.
- Limited resources as a child – For this experiment, mother and babies were housed in a metal cage with only one sheet of paper towel for the mother to nest with her children. This situation is traumatizing in two ways: First, the babies aren’t raised in a comfortable environment, and second, the mother is stressed and behaves erratically under the pressure of caring for her young without enough resources. As adults, they became hypersensitive to colorectal pain. Other studies have linked this to a microbiome shift and increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut).
- Physical pain early in life – Painful chronic constipation and other physical traumas as a child could also lead to IBS. In another experiment, scientists regularly inflated small balloons in young rats’ colons to cause them pain. (This is also how they measure colorectal pain in rat – and human – experiments.) When these rats grew up, not only were they hypersensitive to colorectal pain, but they also had looser stools and more permeable intestines.
Personally, I have never experimented on animals because I find this work heart-breaking. It kills me to think of these poor, traumatized baby rats. They had no control over the situation they were born into or the cruelty they faced. Much like so many of us.
The physical memories of pain
There are many types of IBS. And there are many factors that contribute to whether or not a person will develop IBS. Trauma doesn’t always lead to IBS, nor does an IBS diagnosis imply a person had a traumatic childhood.
However, based on the evidence, at least some of us are suffering from IBS as a consequence of physically stored memories of trauma.
And although we’ve only focused on childhood trauma, I must point out that trauma experienced as an adult can be equally detrimental to health. In fact, in a recent meta-analysis that compared different types of trauma as risk factors for functional syndromes (including IBS), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and combat exposure in military veterans were at the top of the list.
Moving forward with compassion
If you suspect trauma is at the root of your IBS, then you might benefit from both emotional and physical healing. Spiritual practice, support groups, trained therapists or self-help literature can help you reach peace with your past while learning new ways to cope with stress. To help your body find balance, medical professionals can test for conditions like SIBO or food allergies while natural/holistic/traditional healers might offer helpful supplements and dietary advice.
However, the most important resources in your recovery will be patience and self-awareness. Learn how to listen to your body. Know what stress feels like and also what it feels like to let stress go. Discover what foods make you feel better or worse.
The more you know yourself, the quicker you’ll learn how to support your irritable bowel syndrome.
And no matter what, do not blame yourself for your suffering. Even when you eat something you later regret, or take on too many responsibilities at work, you still don’t deserve blame. What brings you pain – whether that’s food, social gatherings, or exams – brings others comfort, joy, or success. That can be frustrating and confusing. And you did not choose to have IBS.
When you feel the instinct to blame yourself, try replacing it with compassion. And if you have a hard time finding compassion for yourself today, see if you can find compassion for yourself as a child, or for other children or animals growing up in adversity.
And finally, if possible, seek out community to share your experiences and listen to others… whether that’s friends, a support group, or an online community. Although trauma increases a person’s risk for IBS, research shows that confiding in others can help decrease that risk. You can help yourself – and others – by sharing and listening.
About the author: Scientists discover so much that could benefit our everyday lives – if only the research made more sense! I’m a PhD scientist/teacher on a personal mission to bridge the information gap between scientific research and public knowledge. There is nothing for sale on this website… I’m just trying to shed some light on research that could benefit others.
I’d love to hear what health & science topics you’d like to learn about. I’m always looking for new ideas.
Photo: (c) Flickr/Eddy Van 3000