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Is IBS Stealing Your Sex Life?

Is IBS Stealing Your Sex Life?

IBS, Secrecy, and Sex

IBS is a condition often experienced in secrecy and shame.  Absences from work or social activities generate manufactured excuses. Sadly, embarrassment and shame about symptoms is often not limited to conversations with friends or co-workers.

IBS can also disrupt relationships with intimate partners. Multiple trips to the bathroom, belly pain, gassiness, bodily mistrust, and feeling “dirty,” are all romance-killers.

In addition, the loss of healthy sexual expression in a relationship leads to intimacy loss and reinforces the social isolation or loneliness so many IBS sufferers experience. Anxiety and depression can thrive in this environment. Simply put, IBS may be killing your sex life along with your relationship satisfaction.

The Scope of the Problem

Research studies show rates of sexual dissatisfaction or dysfunction among IBS sufferers that are at least twice as high as among individuals without IBS (or with mild enough IBS symptoms that medical attention is rarely sought or needed).

The most commonly reported sexual difficulty is loss of desire for sex. However, dyspaneuria (painful intercourse), inorgasmia (inability to reach an orgasm), and impotence (inability to sustain an erection sufficient to engage in intercourse) are quite common as well.

The truth is that the effects of IBS are not confined to the digestive tract. IBS is a whole body condition that impacts your mood, decision making, and all body systems. As a result, IBS affects intimate connection to others through loss of libido or desire, disruption to body image, willingness to be emotionally and physically vulnerable, and even sexual performance suffers if sexual activity is initiated.

Reclaiming Sexual Satisfaction From the Grip of IBS

Restoring intimate connection and sexual satisfaction to your life when you suffer from IBS requires attention to more than just your diet. It is important to remember that the biggest sexual organ in our bodies is the one that sits between our ears, not our legs.

Our thoughts have to be in sync with our bodies and emotions in order for intimacy, including sexual intimacy, to flourish. This requires cultivation of thoughts and feelings of safety, security, and confidence in and with our bodies in order for sexual activity to be pleasurable and enjoyable.

Aligning our thoughts with our bodies is not as hard as you might imagine. That is because we are already, all of us, deeply interconnected. Our gut connects to the rest of the body, including and especially the brain. Brain affects gut. Gut affects brain. And both affect mood, desire, and daily functioning.

Brain affects thoughts, including thoughts about sexual desire, comfort with one’s body, and thoughts about maintaining control of IBS symptoms. In turn, those thoughts, acting through the brain-gut axis, affect the body, turning IBS symptoms up or down like the dial on your home’s thermostat. Your libido and receptivity to sexual connection rises and falls in response.

Action Steps for Improving Sexual Desire and Functioning

So, what helps to calm down IBS activity while ramping up desire and sexual enjoyment? Here are a series of steps you can take to successfully cultivate a healthy sex life.


Treat IBS as a distress call, not as “the enemy”

The symptoms of IBS arise for many reasons. Their presence signals that a multi-level exploration of what is “off” is needed.

Learning to include potential triggers beyond the gut - not just the food you eat or your bacterial balance - is essential. When stressors, disrupted sleep, relationship difficulties, and anxious life concerns are directly addressed, right along with food-related issues, you will have successfully recreated a healthy bodymind environment in which sexual feelings can safely begin to blossom again.

Calm attractive woman feeling relaxed in office home, peaceful mindful businesswoman leaning back on chair with eyes closed, meditating at work, taking deep breath to relax, no stress at workplace


Develop regular self-soothing practices

Worry, anxiety, and IBS flare-ups are tightly intertwined. As one goes up, the others do, too. Self-soothing practices are a simple, portable, and important way to reduce the stress and strain on the interconnected bodymind system that results in IBS symptom activation.

These practices can include a slow walk, meditation, self-hypnosis, massage, listening to calming music, yoga, or a conversation with a trusted friend. The point is that when self-soothing is routinely practiced, you feel calmer in your own skin, quieter and “present” in your mind, and more ready to connect more deeply to others.

A calmer bodymind usually results in the quieting of IBS symptoms while opening the door to greater intimacy of all sorts, including readiness to connect sexually.


Build a Positive Body-image

Body image1 has many dimensions including:
  1. how physically comfortable you are;
  2. how functionally able you are to engage in your daily activities;
  3. how you believe your body appears to you and others;
  4. how reliable and dependable your body is (can you trust it):
  5. how vulnerable your body feels to being thrown off kilter;
  6. how “alive” and vital you feel in your body; and
  7. how your sense of self - your identity - gets tied in with what you experience in your body.
As you can see, IBS can impact all of them. Building a body image not defined in terms of IBS symptoms is important not only for developing IBS symptom control, but for enabling you to tolerate your body being involved in sexual experiences in a satisfying and rewarding way. Psychotherapy may be useful here.


Bubble Bath Benefits

Let’s face it. Cramping, bloating, and poop are not aphrodisiacs. When we feel that way, we don’t want to be with ourselves let alone want to be with others, especially in an intimate setting.

A warm shower or  bath before bed, on the other hand, has unexpected benefits. Not only does it relax the body, quiet the mind, and ease physical distress. It can also help you feel cleaner and more attractive all over. This self-soothing practice can reduce anxiety and worry related to problems “down there” that can otherwise squash any budding amorous feelings.


The Big O

Sometimes, counter-intuitive coping (doing the opposite of what you’d expect) is the best way forward. Reclaiming sexual satisfaction in the presence of IBS is one area where counter-intuitive coping can apply. Sex, and orgasm in particular, can be quite helpful in re-regulating healthy gut functioning.

Paradoxically, the behavior many IBS sufferers want to avoid may hold a key to resolving the problem they want to resolve. IBS involves dysregulated neuromuscular activity in the digestive tract. Diarrhea and constipation are clear signs that the usual muscular rhythms that define healthy gut functioning is off.

All muscles do two things, whether they are skeletal muscles, digestive tract muscles, or genital muscles. They contract and release. They tighten, building and holding tension, and then discharge their stored energy as they let go. Sexual activity is a way of deliberately and pleasurably exercising those bodily muscles systems.

As your body builds toward orgasm, tension builds as muscles throughout the body contract. Orgasm begins with a peaking of that tension, followed by the release of that tension in a series of muscle spasms.

What follows is a state of heightened “vagal tone” in which the bodily systems stimulated by the vagus nerve, including the gut, relax. In addition, oxytocin is released, which stimulates a positive outlook and stronger feelings of connection to your intimate partner, along with a lowering of cortisol, which reduces the body’s stress and inflammatory responses.

So, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, introducing regular orgasms into your weekly “diet” can be as good for your gut as it is for your body, soul, and your intimate connection to others.

1The 7 dimensions of body image are described by L. Hornyak, PhD, in Chapter 2 of, Healing from Within, APA Press, 2000. Washington, D.C.

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Here’s What’s Really Causing Your IBS

Here’s What’s Really Causing Your IBS

(and it’s not what you think)

Chasing Symptoms and Misunderstanding Causes

In today’s world, we expect answers to our questions, and we expect them quickly. When it comes to managing IBS, chasing simple and quick fixes can be as much of the problem as the IBS pattern itself.

Too often, we chase symptoms and settle for narrowly focused ideas of their causes and how to tackle them: “Just eliminate gluten.” “Eat more fiber.” “Practice meditation.” “Go on an elimination diet.” “Go on an anti-inflammation diet.” “Take Nexium.” “Worry less.” “Exercise more.” “Exercise less.” “Just relax.” Continue reading “Here’s What’s Really Causing Your IBS”

Three Major Players in Gut Health

Three Major Players in Gut Health

And how to help them help you

Your digestive system is amazingly complex. Singular inputs, like certain foods, can kick off cascade reactions that affect the body in a multitude of ways. Because of this complexity, you may grow frustrated with how difficult it can be to figure out what helps your IBS and what doesn’t. Continue reading “Three Major Players in Gut Health”

No Yoke! Yoga Can Really Help

No Yoke! Yoga Can Really Help

IBS, Digestive Health, Whole-body Health

There is a therapeutic tug-of-war that is going on constantly in our culture. The tension exists between whether we focus on narrow and specific treatments to problems or choose to focus on broader and more universal solutions that may not be designed for our specific problem, but are really helpful anyway. One example is getting a good night’s sleep. Let’s say that you have one of the following conditions: anxiety, migraine, depression, hypertension, arthritis, or IBS. The narrow treatment focus would say each of these problems requires its own unique solution. The broad focus would argue that sleep is a universal therapeutic solution that is helpful with each of these different conditions. Continue reading “No Yoke! Yoga Can Really Help”

Whose Side Are You On?

Whose Side Are You On?

Antibiotics vs. C. difficile

antibiotics IBS bacteria kill

What’s at Stake When Taking Antibiotics

Each year, more than 150 million antibiotic prescriptions are written. Only a fraction of them are truly necessary. But, whether necessary or not, antibiotic use opens the door to a host of digestive problems, including the development of Clostridium difficile (known as C. diff.), a major digestive bacterial overgrowth syndrome associated with watery diarrhea, cramping, severe pain, dehydration, and fever. This risk arises because antibiotics can indiscriminately kill off many of the friendly or commensal species of bacteria that happily live in our guts and which are so necessary for enabling smooth digestion and nutritional health.

Continue reading “Whose Side Are You On?”


IBS and Trauma

IBS and Trauma


What Connects Trauma and IBS?

From our beginning as a single cell and continuing throughout our lives, when we are healthy, we function as an integrated whole. Every piece and every part of us is in active and constant communication with every other part. Each individual element of that awesome communication network, which is infinitely more complex than the “cloud” through which we are linked across the globe today, acts to fine tune the functioning of every other part of the network so it is best set to meet the demands of the moment. IBS is a sign that this system is off.  Continue reading “IBS AND TRAUMA”


The IBS Workup

By the time clients see me, they have usually seen 3 or more physicians, including at least one gastroenterologist. They have often undergone at least a colonoscopy, and often had other procedures and various lab tests performed. They have probably been prescribed a number of different medicines from different classes of drugs (e.g., anti-depressants, anti-spasmodics, protein pump inhibitors) and may have been advised to use various supplements and/or stool bulking agents to make bowel movements more controllable and efficient. The fact that they are coming to see me, a health psychologist, also means that the sum total of all of these efforts has not yielded a satisfying result.

So, what should a thorough IBS work-up involve? Continue reading “HOW SHOULD IBS BE EVALUATED”

Your Gut Bacteria Linked to Obesity

Each month brings out new research studies showing that the bacteria that live in our digestive tracts are intimately linked to our health in many ways. Our understanding of the relationships between our “gut flora” (the bacteria living in our digestive tract) and our health is still in its infancy. But, several trends are emerging.

One interesting line of research, which was highlighted in a 2018 article in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, involved the relationship between the presence of specific types of bacteria in our gut and the likelihood that we will become obese. They found specific types of bacteria were contributing to higher amounts of a substance called glutamate that circulates in our blood. Glutamate levels in the blood are strongly linked to the risk of obesity. Continue reading “Your Gut Bacteria Linked to Obesity”


What Diet is Best for Managing IBS

There really, absolutely, positively IS a sure-fire diet that effectively permanently controls IBS. Here it is: Eat whatever you want that 1) doesn’t aggravate your IBS symptoms, 2) doesn’t create other health problems, such as obesity, heart disease, insomnia, anxiety, or depression, and 3) leaves you feeling healthy, well-energized, and with a confident and optimistic outlook on your future!

We ALL want THAT diet. Sadly, when it comes to a one-size fits all solution, there isn’t one. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since each of us is unique; each of us lives a life that involves different circumstances and conditions; and just as no two of us share the same fingerprint, no two of us requires exactly the same nutrients to be fully healthy.

So, what do we do to bring the frustrating ravages of IBS under consistent control? Continue reading “IS THERE AN IBS DIET?”

Caring For Our Gastrointestinal Guests

The Body’s Rhythms

Our body wouldn’t function without being guided by many automatic rhythms. Think about it: heart rhythms, breathing rhythms, swallowing and blinking rhythms, nerve firing rhythms, circulating hormone release rhythms. These life-sustaining rhythms occur all day, every day in an automatic, unconscious way. Most of these rhythms also fluctuate within a life-supporting range – faster heart and breathing rates as our activity levels increase, for example. Continue reading “Caring For Our Gastrointestinal Guests”