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.
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
- how physically comfortable you are;
- how functionally able you are to engage in your daily activities;
- how you believe your body appears to you and others;
- how reliable and dependable your body is (can you trust it):
- how vulnerable your body feels to being thrown off kilter;
- how “alive” and vital you feel in your body; and
- how your sense of self - your identity - gets tied in with what you experience in your body.
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.