What Makes IBS Worse? 7 Things You Do When You're Stressed That Can Cause Flare-Ups

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If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) you may have noticed that stress can make your symptoms worse. You might experience a flare-up, as it's called, whenever you're nervous or overwhelmed, or after a particularly stressful day. But there are certain daily habits that can aggravate IBS, too.

"[IBS] is a disorder that affects the large intestine and digestive tract," Kyra Cosman, registered holistic nutritionist and wellness coach, tells Bustle. "It can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, and/or constipation." And while things like what you eat can play a big role in how you feel, many symptoms can be traced back to your emotional well-being.

"Unfortunately, IBS is not well understood," Dr. Alex Tauberg DC, CSCS, CCSP, EMR, tells Bustle. "However, it does appear clear that one's mental state can have an impact on their IBS. Stress in general is something that can cause IBS to flare up." So the more you can do to avoid stressful habits, and stress in general, the better.

"To ease your symptoms, it is recommended that you increase your water intake, maintain a consistent exercise routine, add more fruits and vegetables to your diet, and lower the amount of refined foods, sugars, and starches you are consuming," Cosman says. "It is also recommended that stress management techniques are practiced in order to reduce symptoms," such as yoga and meditation.

Here are a few stress-inducing habits you may want to replace, according to experts, in order to keep IBS symptoms at bay.

1. Not Getting Enough Sleep

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"Stress and lack of sleep usually go hand in hand," Cosman says. So if you're in the habit of staying up late, waking up too early — or worse, switching between the two — you may be aggravating your IBS.

"An irregular sleep schedule can negatively contribute to IBS symptoms by increasing stress levels and disrupting the digestive system," Cosman says. "When we are lacking in sleep, we aren't allowing our bodies to properly reset and this negatively impacts our digestive system and contributes to IBS."

Sticking to a sleep schedule can be a big help. This might look like going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (even on the weekends) and making sure you get at least seven hours of sleep.

2. Overpacking Your Schedule

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While it's fine to have the occasional busy day, living a fast-paced life and over-scheduling yourself so you're running around 24/7 won't do your gut any favors.

"Having an overpacked schedule will result in feelings of stress and anxiety as you jump from one task to the next," Cosman says. "It is important to schedule time to rest, exercise, and enjoy meals."

You'll want to make sure you schedule time off, while also adding relaxing routines into your day, in order to keep stress levels down.

3. Eating Really Quickly

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If you have IBS, it'll be so important to take your time while eating, in order to prevent a flare-up. "Eating in a hurry can aggravate IBS because we’re not allowing time for our bodies to send and process signals," health expert Jasmine Talei, tells Bustle. "We’re not able to produce digestive enzymes to break down our food properly and we have difficulty absorbing the nutrients from our meals." And, she adds, malabsorption can play a significant role in IBS.

To break this habit, make a point of scheduling time to eat into your day, and then sitting down to actually enjoy what you're having. While it can't always be helped, try to avoid eating on the go, and rushing through lunch breaks, in order to keep your gut happy.

4. Relying On Processed Foods

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It's OK to have processed foods from time to time, and to have fast food on occasion. But if you've noticed that you get IBS symptoms right after, you may want to avoid putting your body through this type of stress.

"Foods high in sugar can decrease intestinal motility, slowing down the constriction and relaxation of the intestines that is necessary for a proper bowel movement," Talei says. Fast foods can also put a strain on the digestive system, Cosman says, due to the sugars and excess starches, which can make symptoms worse.

Instead of going through a drive-thru every day, take the time to prepare a few meals at home so you can ensure you're not only getting necessary nutrients, but also avoiding ingredients that can trigger IBS.

5. Drinking Lots Of Coffee

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If you're busy and tired and stressed, you may need a caffeine hit in order to get through the day. You should, however, think twice about having too much, if you're someone who struggles with IBS.

"Caffeine can contribute to IBS in several different ways," Cosman says. "Symptoms of IBS can be worsened by dehydration and excessive amounts of caffeine can contribute to this. Caffeine can also cause higher levels of stress and anxiety and can increase our blood pressure. This can hinder the immune system and increase symptoms of IBS."

To avoid an onslaught of symptoms, you may want to avoid the likes of coffee, caffeinated teas and sodas, and even chocolate.

6. Eating While Distracted

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Believe it or not, eating while distracted — like having dinner while watching TV — is another stressful habit that can aggravate IBS. And that's because, "instead of focusing on the food that is being consumed, the brain is caught up in whatever is on TV," Cosman says. "This leads to eating too quickly and not realizing when we're full," all of which can irritate the gut.

7. Not Exercising

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"Not only does exercise help your digestive system function properly, but it also reduces stress," Cosman says. And without it, you may notice your IBS symptoms getting worse.

"Exercise will release endorphins which can ease stress and also improve sleep quality," she says, so it may help to fit some form of it into your life, whether that means walking after work, riding your bike, or going to the gym.

These habits can all put unnecessary stress on the body, and since stress has been linked to IBS symptom flare-ups, they just may be ones to avoid whenever possible.