Burn Off Stress and Reduce IBS

3 min read

Dr Melissa Hunt

Psychologist & Researcher at UPenn

We know that stress hormones have a direct effect on the gut and tend to make IBS worse. One way to reduce IBS symptom severity is to turn off the stress response with relaxation exercises like deep breathing (link to article 2).

Another way to reduce IBS symptoms is to burn off that stress hormone soup. Remember that the stress response (link to article 1) is designed to help us survive challenges like sabre tooth tiger attacks and mammoth stampedes. That means it juices us up with adrenaline and cortisol and oxygen and glucose in order to provide fuel for a big physical effort. If you get juiced up and then just sit around, all those chemicals are going to make you feel tense, tight, tired, crampy, irritable - just plain awful or even sick. The single best way to burn off that chemical soup is with exercise– which is what it was designed to fuel to begin with.

Lots of people with IBS avoid exercise.

First, they feel awful and run down a lot of the time, and exercise requires energy. You might assume that exercise will make you feel even MORE tired and run down as a result. But this is a belief worth testing, because you may well find that it’s not true. Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous or exhausting. It can actually leave you feeling energised! If you’re an athlete (or former athlete) and you want to train for a 5K, good for you.

But for most of us, just going for a walk or a bike ride around the neighborhood is plenty – and good enough. It will “get the blood moving” and help burn off that chemical soup which is making you feel tense and drained all the time. If you start with something easy that you enjoy, you’ll be more likely to do it again. Second, people with IBS sometimes fear making their IBS symptoms worse (or being too far away from a bathroom) if they engage in activities.

If that’s you, we’ll have a lot more to say on avoidance and bathroom proximity in future articles. For now, consider doing a routine of gentle stretches or some easy strength training exercises right there in the privacy and safety of your own home.

Again, this doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated. Just get up off the couch and move your body a bit. Take some soup cans and do some bicep curls. Do a few easy pushups with your knees on the floor. Lean over, let your upper body hang down, and reach for your toes. Hold that for a minute and see if you can get a bit more stretch with each exhale. Chart your progress over a week and see if you get closer to reaching your toes (or even putting your hands flat on the floor!) Get a good yoga video and try to hold a pose. Ask your spouse or your kid to join you. If nothing else you might get a good laugh out of it!

The point is that any physical activity is better than none and all physical activity will help to burn off the chemical soup that is making your IBS worse and is contributing to those chronic feelings of being stressed and run down.

So don’t let your old beliefs about exercise get in your way. You don’t have to feel the burn to burn it off!