How IBS Affects Personal Relationships
Originally appeared in the April, 2012 issue of Quality Care®
April is National IBS Awareness Month. To increase understanding of this functional gastrointestinal disorder we will explore how IBS can affect your personal relationships.
What is IBS? What are the Symptoms?
The National Institute of Health (NIH) has defined Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) as “a disorder that leads to abdominal pain and cramping in bowel movements and other symptoms.”1 William Salt II, MD, author of “Irritable Bowel Syndrome and the Mind-Body Brain-Gut Connection, states that “IBS is the most common functional GI disorder.” It has been found that one in six people in the United States experience symptoms of IBS. Even more shocking is that “up to 70% of people suffering from IBS are not receiving medical care for their symptoms,” states the New York Gastroenterology Associates.2 This high statistic can be attributed to the embarrassment that some patients may feel about discussing the symptoms with their physician. Abdominal pain, bloating, cramping, constipation and diarrhea are the main symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).1 The treatment for irritable bowel syndrome is to contain, manage or relieve the patient of their symptoms that can be quite disabling for some individuals.
What can be done to treat IBS?
Since there is no specific medical test that can be done to detect IBS, a physician will usually analyze your medical history, diet and lifestyle behaviors. Lifestyle modifications such as “regular exercise and improved sleep habits may reduce anxiety and help relieve bowel symptoms,” according to the NIH.1 These lifestyle changes are important because the NIH states that, “once IBS has been triggered, a number of mental and physical occurrences have been associated with a worsening of symptoms.”1 Due to IBS Awareness month, the topic of the mind/body and brain/gut connection has been discussed more openly.
What is the Mind-Body Connection of IBS?
Charles Gerson, MD, co-director of the Mind-Body Digestive Center in New York City and an associate Clinical Professor of Gastroenterology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has found that, “Treating the patient really required a holistic approach where you treat both the body and the mind.”3 What he is alluding to is the brain-gut connection and how the signals coming from your brain can upset the intestine. Dr. Salt confirms this belief by saying that “signals and symptoms coming from one location can affect the other. The brain can upset the gut: this is how stress, thought, emotion and psychological problems can affect GI tract sensation, feeling, motility and secretion.”3
How do relationships affect IBS?
Mary-Joan Gerson, PhD, a psychologist who is associated with New York University, wife of Dr. Gerson, conducted a study on the quality of personal relationships on IBS patients. They found that “when a patient’s primary relationship was high in terms of support and depth, their symptoms tended to be milder. When a patient’s primary relationship was marked by conflict, their symptoms tend to be more severe.”3
How important is it for IBS patients to have healthy relationships?
Drs. Charles and Mary-Joan Gerson “believe that helping IBS patients to have healthy relationships with the people in their life is an important aspect of IBS treatment.” They recommend that patients:3
- Directly address the areas of conflict in their relationships with others in order to reduce their overall stress level.
- Let the people in their life know what their special needs are in terms of dealing with IBS. It is important to be specific about what things the family member could do to be helpful and what things would be better left for the patient to handle.
- Educate the people in their life about the chronic cause of IBS and that it takes trial and error to learn how to best manage the condition. Patients can ask that the people in their life offer support and encouragement.
- Understand that the people in their life care about the patient’s well-being and that it is often anxiety that leads to over-involvement and unwanted advice. It is a good idea to express gratitude for the concern of others, while educating them regarding the specific and unique nature of IBS.
1Irritable bowel syndrome. NIH Publications No. 07-693. September 2007. The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC)
2Salt II, MD. (1997). Irritable bowel syndrome & the mind-body brain-gut connection. Columbus: Parkview Publishing.
3Gerson, et.al. “An international study of irritable bowel syndrome: Family relationships and mind-body attributions” Social Science & Medicine 2006 62:2838-2847.