Stress has a significant effect on IBS, claims expert

Many people believe stress can cause a flare-up of their irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms.

The symptoms – which include bloating, wind, abdominal pain and a change in bowel habits (such as diarrhoea, constipation or sometimes both) – can, for instance, be triggered during exam time, or whenever you feel anxious. And according to Professor Ted Dinan, this confirms a link between the gut and the brain – or what experts call the gut brain axis.

“We all have a second brain, located in our gut, which influences our mood and even our wellbeing,” says Professor Dinan, a professor of psychiatry at the APC Microbiome Institute at University College Cork.

“It consists of hundreds of millions of neurons, more than the spinal cord has, and it is embedded in the walls of our gut. It’s main job is transmitting information from the microbiota to the brain and the other way round. And the relationship both brains establish may be behind some mental disorders, like depression or anxiety.”

Stress can alter the connections between the gut and brain, argues Professor Dinan. It also affects the way our guts work, he adds. “Unfortunately, in turn, IBS can make you more sensitive to stress.”

About IBS

According to the NHS, IBS is thought to affect up to one in five people at some point in their life, and usually develops when someone is between 20 and 30 years of age (twice as many women are affected as men). And in addition to the main digestive symptoms, IBS can cause a lack of energy, back ache, bladder problems, nausea, incontinence and pain during sex (dyspareunia).

Psychological factors such as stress and anxiety are indeed thought to play an important role in IBS. But there are other triggers too, including fatty or fried food, chocolate, caffeine, processed snacks, alcohol and fizzy drinks. Avoiding such foods and drinks – especially those you know to trigger your symptoms – will help, as will trying to reduce your stress levels.

Professor Dinan also suggests the following stress-reducing steps will help relieve your IBS symptoms:

  1. Get plenty of exercise (three to four times a week).
  2. Practise a relaxation technique.
  3. Get plenty of sleep.
  4. Phone a friend or a member of your family.
  5. Look after your digestive tract.

The NHS also recommends changing your diet, particularly with regards to foods that contain fibre. There are two main types of fibre – soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre dissolves in water and can be found in fruit, root vegetables, oats, barley and rye. It may be helpful to increase the amount of soluble fibre in your diet – as well as the amount of water you drink – if you have constipation as a result of having IBS.

Insoluble fibre, on the other hand, doesn’t dissolve in water, and is found in whole grain bread, bran, nuts, seeds and cereals. If your IBS gives you diarrhoea, cutting down on the insoluble fibre you eat – as well as things like skin, pith and pips from fruit and vegetables – may help.

Many experts also recommend dietary supplements called probiotics to help improve your digestive health, though according to the NHS it’s unclear how much of a benefit probiotics offer. If you’d like to try them, ask your local Careway pharmacist to recommend a nutritional supplement that would be suitable for you.

Find your nearest Careway pharmacy by using our Pharmacy Finder.