Stress and IBS: Finding Balance Between the Gut and Brain

When you suffer from IBS, the term “my stomach is in knots” has a whole different meaning.

Imagine this: You’ve been invited to a dinner party with friends or you are attending a conference, or you want to attend the PTO meeting tonight. What do all these things have in common? They cause you, and your gut, so much stress and anxiety that you decide not to attend. 

Stress is supposed to be the body’s response to danger, but with all the stresses brought on by work, parenting, school, Covid-19, etc., stress seems to be a normal part of daily life. 

Now for the age old question, what came first, the stress or the IBS?

A quick anatomy review. The central nervous system (CNS) controls the body. Made up of two parts, the parasympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) and the sympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) work hand-in-hand, with us not even having to think about. 

Basically, the CNS is the brain and nerves’ way of being on autopilot. Fight or flight is that “stomach in knots”, heart-racing, sweaty palms feeling. When that happens, blood flows more quickly to your muscles and less to your stomach. The “rest and digest” portion of the CNS is responsible for a state of calm, or homeostasis. 

Bodily functions like blood pressure, urination, saliva production, and digestion are all functions of the sympathetic nervous system. IBS is a stress-centered condition, so learning ways to balance stress and anxiety can benefit our IBS symptoms.

IBS disrupts our state of autopilot, or homeostasis. When you are feeling more worked up, overwhelmed, nervous and just plain stressed out, the gut reacts by causing symptoms like diarrhea, stomach churning, gas, constipation, and overall discomfort. 

Our bodies want to coast on autopilot, but a constant state of stress and anxiety makes that nearly impossible, wreaking havoc on the gut microbiome. Studies show that chronic “fight or flight” can lead to gut dysbiosis, or an imbalance of gut bacteria. This level of stress might be a key factor in the development of IBS. 

So what can we do? First, identify what your personal stresses are. Consider keeping a journal to track the ins and outs of your day, your diet, and your mental health. It might take weeks or even months, but it is really helpful to have something to point to, and figure out what your triggers are. 

As your journal comes together, you might just realize this big secret - it’s not always about the food!

As important as nutrition is, there are other things to consider and ways to combat stress:

  • Deep breathing, meditation, yoga practice. Take a few deep breaths before each meal to calm yourself down and prepare for a meal. Deep breathing takes practice and is incredibly beneficial.
  • Chew your food! Chewing enough to make your food the consistency of applesauce before swallowing has been shown to improve digestion and nutrient absorption
  • Stay hydrated. Current dietary guidelines recommend between 1.5-3L daily. Especially water, herbal tea and other non-caffeinated beverages.
  • Daily movement. Not only is this good for lowering stress levels and mental health, but movement also aids in digestion. Go for walks, take an easy bike ride, or try practicing yoga.
  • Positive self-talk. Give yourself grace and reframe the way you think and talk about yourself and your body. Instead of comments like “my body is a mess” try “my body is healing”. Just like we tell our kids, “It’s not that you can’t do it. You can’t do it, yet.

Eliminating stress altogether is unlikely, but with good nutrition and stress relieving practices in place, we can help to reduce stress with IBS.  

 

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