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Barbara Bradley Bolen, Ph.D.

IBS: Where Physical Health and Mental Health Intertwine

By May 18, 2011

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The American Psychological Association (APA) is encouraging bloggers to post a blog today discussing some aspect of mental health. IBS is a topic in which the arbitrary delineation between physical and mental health is particularly murky. For way too long, (and sadly, still ongoing), IBS has been seen as being "all in one's head". This notion has "muddied the waters" for years, causing immeasurable pain and unnecessary distress to countless numbers of IBS sufferers, as well as discouraging research into helpful, effective treatments.

One of the main reasons that I chose to write about IBS was the fact that I saw people falling into the gap between medical practitioners and mental health professionals. Doctors said it was a psychological problem, not a medical problem and recommended a psychiatrist or psychologist. Mental health professionals saw it as a medical problem and had neither the training or the experience as to how to help the IBS patient. My books and my work here at About.com have all been attempts to try to fill that gap and help individuals to navigate the physical/mental heath divide so as to begin to feel better!

The fact that IBS symptoms cannot be explained by visible tissue damage or inflammation, has left the disorder vulnerable to the "it's all in your head" conclusion. Higher rates of anxiety and depression symptoms among IBS patients have added further weight to the "it's all psychological" camp. Luckily, newer avenues of research are looking into the biological factors that may explain the digestive system dysfunction that contributes to IBS symptoms, as well as identifying the common biological causes among IBS and various psychiatric diagnoses.

It is high time that we all see the body as a whole and do away with old school artificial distinctions between physical health and mental health. In doing so, we will reduce stigma and afford equal weight to finding effective treatment options for all causes of human suffering, whether they be mood symptoms, digestive problems, or the more popular "ribbon and bracelet" diseases.

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October 14, 2012 at 2:45 pm
(1) angie says:

I think my IBS is completely physical and aggravated by stress. I have Grave’s disease and every other person I know who has Grave’s got IBS when their symptoms for Grave’s started. People with low thyroid do not have this problem but everyone I know who had high thyroid and had to be treated by surgery or radiation still have IBS. I manage mine with probiotics

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