IBS, stress and the gut-brain connection

IBS is a prevalent condition in the developed world with 10-15% of people world wide suffering its symptoms and about 1 in 3 people in the UK, twice as many women as men. It can be debilitating, poorly understood and poorly treated, and while stress is a major factor the causes are multifactorial.

Approx read time: 5 mins

What even is IBS?

IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and has a range of symptoms from bloating and gas to pain, constipation and/or diarrhoea. It’s the diagnosis given to people presenting with gut complaints that can’t be pinned down to any ‘big’ disease such as coeliac, crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis or cancer. But it’s like someone going to the doctors with a problematic leg and being diagnosed with irritable leg syndrome, it’s a bit of a cop out! 

There’s always something more specific, or a range of things, that are causing the issue; just sending the person away with a woolly diagnosis of IBS and not investigating the ‘why’ is doing them a real disservice.

So what could be causing these gut issues when the main conditions have been ruled out? 

The role of stress in IBS

Stress is a huge influence. Imagine that your brain and your gut* are connected by a telephone line. In reality they are and it’s called the vagus nerve. When your brain is unhappy it rings your gut up via the vagus nerve and tells it, and when your gut is unhappy it literally calls your brain to let it know.

That’s why when you’re nervous or anxious you keep rushing to the loo or your ‘stomach’ feels unsettled or acid’y or your mouth dries up or you feel bloated.

But how do they ring each other up? Via neurons (nerve cells) that pass messages along the telephone line and via the microbes that live inside your gut – which has the collective weight of a big mango doncha know.

*When I say gut I mean the whole ‘tube’, including the stomach, between your mouth and bum!

IBS, stress and the gut-brain connection
Hello Brain? It’s me, Gut. HELP!

We can’t outrun evolution

There’s a good evolutionary reason for all this and it’s because back in the day we learnt to run away from animals that were going to eat us. To quickly sprint away from a lion or cheetah you need lots of blood in your leg muscles, it’s no time to be digesting food, that’s not the priority, so the blood supply is shunted from the gut to the working muscles. Any food that’s in there just sits fermenting and creating gas or moves up or down, and out!

Stomach acid increases just in case there is a danger of poisoning and it might have to kill things that enter it by accident, so you feel more ‘acid’y and burny in your stomach. Saliva production decreases because your body doesn’t want you to be eating at that point, so you get that horrid dry mouth and bang goes digesting starches efficiently.

Clever eh? What a great set of reactions for running away from a predator. Not so good if it’s as a result of chronic stress. 

You see the body can’t distinguish easily between stress types, so if you’re worried or anxious about work, relationships, your children, money or if you are over-exercising or are over-sedentary or if you’re not sleeping well, your body interprets it all as if there’s a cheetah at your heels. We all know that these worries are constant, therefore your body can be in a state of constant (termed ‘chronic’) stress and your gut reacts accordingly, like ALL the time.

Then what happens is you get constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, gas from fermenting food, gut pain – and a diagnosis of IBS, gah!

Did you know that studies show 80% of IBS sufferers report being chronically stressed or anxious. No surprises there eh?

Medication or meditation?

But how many GPs prescribe meditation or relaxation or refer patients for mental health support or other types of ‘softer’ interventions? Not many. People are sent away with medicines to control stomach acid or are just sent away with a simple ’It’s IBS there’s not a lot we can do’ diagnosis. Big mistake because an unhappy gut is often the seat of many other health conditions and looking after it can be a massive game changer in healthcare.

In the future we’ll probably get private or ‘on the high street’ gut clinics springing up, so just like so many people are now forced to pay for dentistry and eye tests this area of medical care will be sidelined. Of course that usually comes at a high cost so leaves a whole raft of people unsupported. 

What can you do by yourself if you’ve been sent off with a diagnosis of IBS and no real support?

A good place to start is with Nuush – but you knew I’d say that. Our Nourish . Move . Restore . Connect ecosystem is kind to guts. Those four things address your diet, activity levels, time in nature, sleep and relaxation and your relationships. In effect they help to de-stress your body and mind. Maybe we should have a high street clinic 🙂

By the way, there are reasons other than stress for gut malady (apart from the standard diseases) but if I go into them here it’ll be too long. Look out for another post soon.

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Thank you for reading this article. Please note that while we share a lot of awesome information and research you should be aware our articles are strictly for informational purposes and do not constitute medical advice intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any disease.

Cover photo from Shutterstock. Additional photo by Alex Andrews from Pexels.