The Stress-IBS Cycle
In the theme of both IBS and Stress Awareness Month this April, what better way to address the two than delving deep into the IBS-STRESS CYCLE.
Unfortunately, we can often find that IBS sufferers present with high levels of stress, and those who struggle with chronic stress present with digestive complaints. It is a viscous cycle that can be hard to crack… but don’t fear. There are ways that we can work on managing our stress whilst also supporting better digestive health.
Read on to discover all you need to know when it comes to our gut health and stress levels…
THE HUMAN STRESS RESPONSE
When we are calm, our heart rate slows down, our breathing slows, we salivate, pupils become constricted, digestion is stimulated and our bowels function normally. This is our parasympathetic nervous system, which is also referred to as the REST AND DIGEST mode. This mode keeps us relaxed and conserves the body’s natural activity level and this is the state we want to be in for optimal digestion.
When we are not feeling so calm, our heart rate increases, the mouth dries up, breathing speeds up, pupils dilate and digestion slows down. This is known as our FIGHT OR FLIGHT mode. This mode triggers a cascade of stress hormones throughout the body that produce these physiological changes. This mode is fantastic for running away from danger, fighting off attackers or chasing prey, but unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not as life-threatening such as daily frustrations, loud noises, work pressures and traffic jams. When we are in a fight or flight response, we divert resources away from the gut to other areas of the body, triggering gastrointestinal changes.
Research has shown the long-term impacts that chronic stress has on our physical and psychological health. Over time, this repeated activation of our stress response can take its toll on the body, with research showing that chronic stress can contribute to high blood pressure, poor gut health and the development of anxiety and depression.
HOW DOES STRESS TRIGGER IBS? AND HOW DOES IBS TRIGGER STRESS?
So which turned up first – the chronic stress or uncomfortable IBS symptoms?
Well, unfortunately, both can trigger the other and it is entirely dependent on the individual. The likelihood is that if you suffer from IBS, you probably have high-stress levels, and if you have high-stress levels, you probably have IBS-like symptoms.
HOW STRESS TRIGGERS IBS…
When the body experiences a stressor, it can cause a whole host of events that are designed to help us escape danger. It often shuts down non-essential activities such as reproduction and digestion, which can have big repercussions for our overall gut health.
Strong emotions such as stress, anxiety, and depression can all trigger chemicals in the brain that switch on pain signals in the gut. These signals can lead to painful cramps and spasms in the digestive tract as well as causing other IBS symptoms such as bloating and loose bowel movements.
Our nervous system is highly sensitive to stress. When activated, the central nervous system releases hormones that can impact digestive processes in the gut, often exacerbating and triggering symptoms such as diarrhoea, constipation, bloating and discomfort.
Chronic levels of stress can also lead to dysbiosis – an imbalance of intestinal bacteria. This stress-induced dysbiosis plays a key role in an individual developing IBS. (2)
It has been estimated that 40-60% of patients with IBS suffer from anxiety or depression (3). Situations such as a breakup, argument, someone leaving home, or any major life traumas are known to make the symptoms surrounding IBS worse.
If an individual has high levels of stress, their IBS symptoms can become severe, impacting their overall quality of life. Stress impacts or triggers IBS symptoms by:
Reducing intestinal blood flow
Increasing intestinal permeability
Activating the immune system, potentially resulting in allergic responses to healthy foods
Resulting in inflammation in the immune system
Triggering changes in stomach acid production
HOW IBS TRIGGERS STRESS…
Serotonin, also known as our happy hormone, is a neurotransmitter that impacts numerous aspects of physiology including our mood. And did you know that 96% of this happy hormone is created in the gut! When the body has optimal levels of serotonin, it can help to regulate stress, mood, anxiety and overall happiness. However, low and depleted levels of serotonin are linked to higher stress levels and depression.
In addition, short-chain fatty acids produced by our gut bacteria interact with the cells responsible for serotonin production in the gut, and a balanced colony of bacteria in the gut can lead to higher production of these beneficial SCFAs.
Our gut microbes can also impact GABA, another neurotransmitter that plays a role in regulating and improving mood. Certain strains of bacteria such as Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus and Lactococcus can even help produce GABA! Therefore, keeping our gut bacteria flourishing and healthy is fundamental to keeping our brain neurotransmitters in check, and our body’s stress resilience low.
IBS symptoms can be a significant stress trigger! Needing to run to the toilet at a whim, not being able to wear clothes you want because of the bloat, being nervous about letting one go in a social occasion… this can make anyone feel a bit stressy!
So as you can see, stress and IBS work in a bit of a viscous cycle, and you will often find that one can’t be separated from the other! But not to despair, read on for some of my favourite stress reducing tactics to also help manage your IBS.
6 IBS Stress-Busting Tips:
-YOGA- Studies have shown that yoga may help to reduce symptoms of IBS (4) whilst also lowering stress levels and improving the overall quality of life (5). Try your local yoga studio, or sign up to Glo, an online platform offering over 3000 yoga videos across 12 different styles, all from the comfort of your home.
-Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)- Numerous studies have shown the improvement of both stress levels and IBS symptoms with CBT. (6) Try out the Nerva app, which can help to manage IBS symptoms, take a read of the IBS network website or get a GP referral if you feel you need further help.
-Meditation- Meditation has been shown to reduce bowel-related symptoms and IBS distress. Really focusing on the mind-body connection and present moment awareness helps to put the body at ease. (7) Try an at home meditation app to get you started such as Calm, a flexible app with less structured programs and exercises to help manage anxiety. Alternatively, the Superhuman app is great for beginners, with cooking and cleaning meditation recordings, 95% of users felt a positive mood shift within a week.
-Mindful movement- exercise helps to release chemicals in the brain called endorphins, which are also known as the body’s “natural painkillers”. These can help to reduce stress and improve sleep, even just ten minutes of exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects. Think walking, Pilates, swimming and yoga.
-Balanced diet- Eating whole foods in their natural form such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and legumes contain many different fibres and other complex carbohydrates that can fuel activities and maintain a balance in the gut bacterial ecosystem. Increasing your overall fibre intake has been shown to reduce the effects of stress on the body. (8)
Incorporating prebiotic rich foods into the diet can also be beneficial for stress and mental health. Prebiotics are a dietary fibre that feed our “friendly” gut bacteria. Consuming prebiotic rich foods encourages our gut bacteria to produce essential nutrients for colon cells, resulting in an overall healthier digestive system. Some of these nutrients include short chain fatty acids, such as butyrate and acetate, which help to lower inflammation (9). Reach for asparagus, garlic, onions, apples and flax seeds.
-Mindful Eating- A powerful tool, allowing us to focus on the present moment and on HOW we eat, rather than WHAT we eat. With busy lives and technology surrounding us, we can often rush or be distracted when eating. Start your meal with a few deep breaths, and really take in the sensations surrounding your meal- Smells, textures and tastes.
Putting cutlery down between each bite and aiming to chew your food till the consistency of applesauce can be beneficial for your digestive system and stress levels. Eating mindfully can help you to slow down, take a break from the constant hustle and bustle of everyday life and lower levels of stress and anxiety by connecting with oneself.
The treatment of IBS can be a complex one and stress is just one piece of the puzzle, but starting with relaxation techniques may be just what your gut needs to rebalance itself. To help reduce psychological stress, try some of the above techniques or work with a gut health specialist to rule out any underlying conditions.
To work with myself or one of the CLN nutritionists who specialise in gut and adrenal health, please email my team on email@example.com to find out more or book in for a free discovery call here.