Stress & Bowel Dysfunction

digestive system

A recent article describing the impact of psychological factors on bowel dysfunction describes several mechanisms by which this may occur. Issues cited that may influence the bowels include psychological stress, which can lead to nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and changes in bowel patterns or habits. Stress can also affect the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis. This axis is a major part of the neuroendocrine system that, in addition to controlling stress reactions, regulates many body functions such as digestion and immunity. During stress, cortico-releasing factor (CRF) can also be released, and act directly on the bowels or via the central nervous system. The authors point out that CRF can also affect the microbiota composition within the gut.

Corticotrophin-releasing factor can affect gut motility, permeability, and inflammation. The way in which motility is affected can vary, from increased movement of bowel contents to more sluggish movement, depending "…on the type of CRF family receptor expressed on the target organ." Gut permeability can also be affected by CRF, leading to bowel hypersensitivity and other issues such as nutritional absorption dysfunction. Stress-associated inflammation is also of concern, with markers of inflammation being found in patients who have irritable bowel syndrome and other conditions. Dysbiosis, or microbial imbalance, can be caused by stress, leading to changes in bowel motility , inflammation, and permeability, according to the referenced article. Diet-induced dysbiosis, discussed in this article, can lead to inappropriate inflammation and to cellular damage and autoimmunity, making a person vulnerable to chronic disease of the gastrointestinal tract. Such disease conditions may include ulcerative colitis, Chrohn's disease, celiac disease, and diabetes. Probiotics, prebiotics, and alterations in dietary intake are current therapeutic approaches, with further research needed to determine what types of interventions are most helpful for specific conditions.

Pelvic rehabilitation providers, especially those who are newer to the field, quickly discover that trying to treat pelvic dysfunction without knowledge of bowel health is like trying to treat low back pain while ignoring the pelvis: to truly ease symptoms both may need to be addressed. Patients often present with a combination of issues in the domains of bowel, bladder, sexual health and pain, and being able to address all with expertise aids in effectiveness of care. If you are interested in learning more about bowel dysfunction, faculty member Lila Abbate teaches her continuing education course "Bowel Pathology and Function" in California in early November. There is also an opportunity to learn about how to ameliorate stress and its potentially negative affects on bowel health by attending the Mindfulness-Based Biopsychological Approach to the Treatment of Chronic Pain taking place in Seattle in November.

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