Stress and IBD Flareups

Over the years, I’ve had several experiences in which some patients had flareups of their inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in relation to specific stresses (eg. going to away camp).  This was not just stomach pain but instead bloody diarrhea.  While this is very infrequent, I’ve come to believe that there may be some individuals who develop IBD flareups in response to stress. A recent study (Targownik LE, et al. AJG 2015; 110, 1001-1012doi:10.1038/ajg.2015.147) suggests that most of the time when individuals report a flareup in response to stress, that there is not objective evidence of increased inflammation.

The Relationship Among Perceived Stress, Symptoms, and Inflammation in Persons With Inflammatory Bowel Disease

From Abstract:


Participants were recruited from a population-based registry of individuals with known IBD. Symptomatic disease activity was assessed using validated clinical indices: the Manitoba IBD Index (MIBDI) and Harvey Bradshaw Index (HBI) for Crohn’s disease (CD), and Powell Tuck Index (PTI) for ulcerative colitis (UC). Perceived stress was measured using Cohen’s Perceived Stress Scale (CPSS). Intestinal inflammation was determined through measurement of fecal calprotectin (FCAL), with a level exceeding 250μg/g indicating significant inflammation. Logistic regressions were used to evaluate the association between intestinal inflammation, perceived stress, and disease activity.


Of the 478 participants with completed surveys and stool samples, perceived stress was associated with symptomatic activity (MIBDI) for both CD and UC (1.07 per 1-point increase on the CPSS, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.03–1.10 and 1.03–1.11, respectively). There was no significant association between perceived stress and intestinal inflammation for either CD or UC. Active symptoms (MIBDI ≤3) were associated with intestinal inflammation in UC (odds ratio (OR) 3.94, 95% CI 1.65–9.43), but not in CD (OR 0.98, 95% CI 0.51–1.88).


Symptomatic disease activity was unrelated to intestinal inflammation in CD and only weakly associated in UC. Although there was a strong relationship between perceived stress and gastrointestinal symptoms, perceived stress was unrelated to concurrent intestinal inflammation. Longitudinal investigation is required to determine the directionality of the relationship between perceived stress, inflammation, and symptoms in IBD.

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