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updated 7/8/2010 8:39:01 AM ET 2010-07-08T12:39:01

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which affects as many as 1 million Americans, refers to two chronic diseases that cause inflammation of the intestines: Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Although stress does not cause IBD, it can aggravate IBD symptoms — including abdominal pain, cramps, and diarrhea — and may be a primary reason for flare-ups, which occur when the disease intermittently becomes active. As reported in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, a new study finds that psychological factors like stress and going through major life events were more likely to cause flares than physical factors, such as infections or the use of aspirin, ibuprofen, or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

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In the Canadian study, researchers surveyed known IBD sufferers every three months for a year. They tracked infections, the use of NSAIDs and antibiotics, major life events, mood, and stress levels. During the year, 174 participants ended up having flares, versus 209 whose IBD symptoms did not flare up. There was no difference between the two groups in terms of NSAID or antibiotic use, or the incidence of infections, but those who had flares experienced more stress, reported more major life events (such as the death of a loved one), or reported more periods of bad moods.

What it means
Clearly, stress can make the unpleasant symptoms of this condition flare up. And knowing that gives people who have IBD a strategy to keep it under control. "Our study adds to the growing evidence that psychological factors contribute to IBD flares," write the study authors. "Therefore, stress-management training and timely stress interventions may be as important to IBD sufferers as the medications now used to treat symptoms when the disease is active."

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Here are some ways to handle stress, and maybe keep your IBD nice and quiet:

Try mindfulness
Simple mindfulness techniques can help you stay calm under pressure, and regular practice can keep your overall stress levels low. Many hospitals and health centers offer classes in mindfulness meditation. One recent study found that U.S. Marines benefited from mindfulness training before being deployed.

Spend time outdoors
Research shows that spending time in nature is a, well, natural stress buster. So find ways to spend time outside every day. Bring your dog with you, or a friend's — spending time with animals reduces stress, among other benefits.

Treat yourself to a hand massage
In a study done in 2008, a five-minute hand rub was effective at lowering stress levels. You can teach a friend or partner how (and offer to return the favor when they need it). Or do it for yourself if there's no one around to lend a hand.

Control workplace stress
Learn how to manage workplace stress and ease the burden when you have to bring work home with you.

Customize your to-do list
No need to only list chores, meetings, and deadlines in your calendar or daily planner. Include enjoyable things as well. This has the added benefit of giving you more to cross off — voilà, a greater sense of accomplishment. For example: "Check my favorite travel blog to plan this year's vacation" or "Watch that basketball game at 3:00."

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