IBS, Stress and Anxiety

IBS, stress and anxiety

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is:

‘A chronic, relapsing, and often life-long disorder.  Characterised by the presence of abdominal pain or discomfort, which may be associates with defaecation and/or accompanied by a change in bowel habit’.

NICE, 2015

It is unpleasant and often debilitating for those living with it, especially as there is no definitive cure.

But there are ways you can reduce stress in your life, which can help to lessen your IBS symptoms.

There is no such thing as a quick fix though – I know from experience.  As an IBS sufferer, I have learned the hard way.  I tried restrictive diets and various probiotics.  None of it worked..

I will never forget going to my GP, being given a low FODMAP diet sheet, and sent on my merry way – the road to zero relief!

He even told me my bloating was a result of weak stomach muscles which led to a frantic and poor relationship with the gym.

I would end up in agony for days, often ending up in hospital, and really did hit rock bottom with it.

People would often tell me how I looked 6 months pregnant when I was having a flare-up an it really knocked my confidence having to wear baggy clothes to cover it up.

Not to mention the constant fatigue, brain fog and anxiety around what foods to eat and avoid.

It wasn’t until I did my nutrition training and realised the complexity of IBS that I was able to really take control of my symptoms.

IBS has numerous expressions which result in different symptoms that should be dealt with individually through diet and lifestyle changed.  There is no one size fits all approach, you have to become your own scientist and work out what is going on so you are able to manage the symptoms and live a better quality of life.  And no, this does not mean a low FODMAP or restrictive diet for life!  This is quite often what I support my clients in doing.

The thing is, though, if you do not pay attention to stress also, the whole process can be undermined.

An overzealous stress response may significantly alter not only the sensitivity of the central and enteric nervous systems, but also other potentially important factors such as gut motility, intestinal mucosal permeability and barrier functioning, visceral sensitivity, mucosal blood flow, immune cell reactivity and enteric microbiota composition. Symptoms of these (mal)adaptive changes may include constipation, diarrhoea, bloating and abdominal pain, manifesting clinically as IBS.

Mayer et al, 2016

Tackling diet alone is therefore futile, techniques to reduce stress should be practised alongside this.

An estimated 40-60% of IBS sufferers struggle with anxiety or depression. Stress and major life traumas are all known to worsen the symptoms associated with IBS.

For anyone who has a lot of stress in their life, the symptoms can become severe.  This is because stress releases hormones that wreak havoc on your gut.

Here are some evidence-based ways to help manage IBS so that you no longer have to ‘just live’ with the pain, suffering, bloating, even embarrassment!


A 2011 study showed that the daily practice of meditation led to significant improvements in IBS symptoms within 3 months.  These included flatulence, belching, bloating, and diarrhea.

It also showed some significance in the improvement of constipation but this was not as strong.

Benson’s Relaxation Response Meditation appears to be particularly useful in the treatment of IBS:


Aim for at least seven to eight hours sleep a night. Getting plenty of sleep can provide you with the energy you need to go through your day. Going to sleep at a regular bedtime, avoiding use of electronic devices in bed, and keeping your bedroom cool and dark can all promote a better night’s sleep. You can read more here on how to improve your sleep hygiene.

Fish oils

Fish oils have an anti-inflammatory response. 

In a study by Lucas et al. (2009), women with moderate-severe psychological distress saw significantly improved symptoms when they took an Omega 3 (specifically EPA) supplement for 8 weeks.


Numerous studies have reported the improvement in symptoms of IBS with a more active lifestyle in both men and women.

It appears to help transit time, gas transit and therefore bloating.

One study by Grames & Berry Caban (2012) showed how strenuous endurance training can improve diarrhea and gastrointestinal cramps.

But you do not have to hit the gym hard to relieve symptoms, general exercise and everyday movement can significantly help.

I find reagular walking to be really helpful.

Personally, I found huge benefits when I started to manage my time better and factor in plenty of down time.  
All too often, we need to rest when we have the least time to do it but it is vital that we listen to our bodies if we want to leave happy and healthy lives.
Daily journalling also helped me to identify how my methods of managing stress were improving and how my symptoms were getting better.  When you experience the benefits, you will begin to look after yourself better.  It is how I actually increased my productivity and energy levels.
It is worth keeping a journal for a while — major life events and stressors could trigger a flare-up a few weeks or months later.

Once you’ve identified the major stressors in your life, you can learn how to cope with the stress these situations can create.  the reality is that we can’t always eradicate them but we can become more resilient so that the impact is not so physically and psychologically painful and damaging.

To sum up

Stress can absolutely be a contributing factor to IBS but it isn’t the only one.  There are other factors that need to be addressed, often with the support of a professional.

Managing stress as well as managing your diet can reduce the risk of triggers and therefore IBS symptoms whenever possible.  Prevention is always better than cure.