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.  Interconnection. Integration. Dynamic interaction. Mutual regulation. These are the descriptions of how we function when we are healthy. On the other hand, disconnection, disintegration, static or frozen interaction, and non-adaptive regulation describe what happens when a condition such as IBS develops. The digestive tract’s interactions with other parts of the body, including the brain, are no longer working together as a whole, in the harmonious balance that defines healthy functioning. When we experience a trauma (or a series of traumatic events), the effect is to directly disrupt and disconnect the integrated holism of the body. Trauma sets in motion a cascade of changes that impact upon the body’s pieces and parts, and how they “talk” to each other. As a result, our sophisticated system of checks and balances gets thrown off. In response, symptoms arise in organs most vulnerable to the loss of finely-tuned, healthy self-regulation. The gut is among the most vulnerable of our body’s systems, so it isn’t surprising that it is the system through which lingering effects of trauma often get expressed, as is the case with up to 40% of people, primarily women, who have IBS and also describe a history of trauma (e.g., harassment, abuse, and assault).

Trauma as a “Sensitizer” for Later IBS

The experience of trauma, especially when suffered early in life, unleashes microscopic changes in the body that can sensitize the body to later develop IBS, according to research described by D. Drossman, MD.¹ His research article found clear evidence that women with more severe forms of IBS also tend to have higher rates of a history of early trauma in their lives, particularly different forms of sexual trauma. The subjects in the study did not necessarily show a history of IBS at the time they were exposed to trauma. This suggested that the IBS developed later, possibly as a response to the experience of trauma. But, such a conclusion left open the question about how the response came to be expressed through gastrointestinal symptoms in the form of IBS. In other words, how did trauma induce changes in the body and/or mind that led to the later development of IBS?
Here are several pathways that link together trauma and the development of IBS.
  1. Trauma to the body, especially sexual trauma, can generate increased awareness of sensations in the body. This helps explain the research finding that people with trauma histories can experience a given sensation as more intense than does a person without such a history. They have been “sensitized” to have more sensory awareness.
  2. The greater awareness and sensitivity to bodily sensation, including sensations in the digestive tract, are matched by increased activation of brain areas that process information from the body and interpret it as “painful.” This finding supports the concept of a “gut-body-brain” connection so central to understanding and effectively treating IBS. Moreover, when the IBS was successfully treated, the brain area processing the sensations as “painful” had become significantly less active.
  3. High stress experiences – and traumatic experiences certainly qualify – generate low-grade inflammation. When that information occurs in the gut’s lining, a “favorite” area for inflammatory reactions to cluster, the lining becomes less effective at keeping from entering into the body proper bacterial bugs that that have no business being inside the body (e.g., leaky gut syndrome or small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIB) are conditions that can arise). consequence, too.
  4. High stress experiences like trauma also impact the gut’s motility (i.e., how effectively the digestive tract’s smooth muscles empty the stomach and move along the materials contained with the tubular gut to its proper destination(s). When motility and the muscle action (peristalsis) are affected by trauma, through inflammation or through muscle dysregulation commonly seen in victims of penetrative trauma, IBS symptoms patterns often arise.
  5. In the aftermath of trauma, many people develop patterns of anxiety and depression, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These conditions affect the physical body as well as the emotions sufferers feel. In both cases, the effect is to dysregulate the way in which emotions, thoughts, and the physical body communicate with each other. More importantly, there can be a loss of ability to regulate the optimal response to the circumstances faced in life each day. The result can be a highly reactive and powerful response to relatively modest stressors, or an under-active, numbed response to situations where action is needed. And, one of the most common signals indicating disruption to the normally fine-tuned connection between environmental stimulus and proportional body-based emotional response is IBS.

What is the Solution?

An important but often overlooked step in obtaining whole-body health is to appreciate and accept that everything within the bodymind is interconnected. While we may have names for parts that seem separate from one another – our heart, our brain, our lungs – they are actually in constant contact. They provide each other feedback all the time. There really isn’t any part of the body that doesn’t participate in the experience felt by a different part of the body, including the brain. Therefore, how could it be that the gut is “unaware” of an experience as powerful and wounding as trauma? That doesn’t mean that trauma ALWAYS produces IBS. Nor does everyone with IBS have a history of trauma. The bodymind is enormously complex, with many pathways along which symptoms can develop. But – and this is key – the main point to remember is that BECAUSE all the body’s parts are interconnected, bringing about a positive and healthy change in one part can usher in positive and healthy changes throughout the rest of the system! Here are some brief suggestions to heal the consequences of trauma and obtain IBS relief.
  1. Develop a yoga practice, especially one that is attuned to trauma. The word yoga means to unite or to “yoke together,” so a consistent yoga practice can re-unite and restore the disconnections between and among the pieces and parts of the body and mind.
  2. When necessary, seek psychotherapy from a qualified health professional. Ideally, the IBS and trauma consequences will be recognized and treated as different parts of the same underlying “whole,” not as independent conditions needing independent therapies.
  3. Spend time in nature where you are exposed to natural cycles and rhythms of day and night, seasons, and weather. We evolved in coordination with these natural rhythms. Reconnecting to them has a proven benefit in helping us to restore our natural rhythms, too.
  4. Engage in practices that calm the body and quiet the mind. Meditative practices are especially helpful with this. Their relevance here is that for trauma-connected IBS to heal, a means of turning down the mental/physical reactivity dial is needed, and meditation, for example, is especially helpful in achieving this.