Understanding the link between Stress & IBS


Understanding the link between Stress & IBS

Am I stressed because I have IBS, or do I have IBS because I’m stressed? Someone asks me this at least 5 times every day. The first thing I want to say is that your IBS is real and you’re not imagining it. The second thing I want to say is that when it comes to stress and food and IBS, everyone is on a spectrum. Food definitely plays a role, stress also definitely plays a role and living with IBS is also stressful. So where do all of these factors intersect and what can you do about it? That’s what we are talking about today.



Did you know that some FODMAPs (I’m looking at you onion, garlic & wheat) are FODMAPs for all humans? That’s right, no humans can break down certain FODMAPs and in everyone they are poorly digested and create gas in the lower intestines. Whether they cause symptoms or not, is more about how sensitive the nerves in the gut are. While one person eats a slice of garlic bread and walks around saying “I’m farting a lot today, isn’t that funny” another can eat the same slice of garlic bread and be in a world of pain as a result. This is because the nerves in their gut and their gut brain axis respond differently to the gas created in their gut.


Understanding IBS the gut-brain axis

The gut brain axis is a 2-way superhighway between the nerves in the gut (the enteric nervous system) and the brain (the central nervous system). While signals travel in both directions, most of the communication is the gut reporting back to the brain what is going on with digestion.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is classified as a disorder of the gut brain axis. It’s believed that the nerves in the gut are hypersensitive, they over collect information about digestion and over communicate this information with the brain. Sometimes, some of this information can get scrambled along the way, a bit like Chinese whispers. When the brain is getting flooded with too much information (some of it inaccurate), it starts to think that there is something wrong or dangerous going on in the gut and gets worried. This results in the brain sending back messages of pain, bloating, discomfort or altering digestive speed to get your attention and get you to “fix” things.

When FODMAPs create gas in the lower intestines, this stretches the walls of the intestines and stimulates the sensitive nerves to jump into action. While this is not dangerous or damaging, the sensitive nerves and the gut brain axis treat it like it is.


How stress plays a role

Stress can come in many forms, it can be sudden and unexpected, or it can be a constant low level of chronic stress created by work, kids, wake up alarms, dinners and expectations from friends and family. Both acute and chronic stress can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and rouse your fight or flight response. If the stress is chronic, fight or flight can be just constantly bubbling away.

When your body is in its fight of flight mode, it’s preparing for action. It diverts blood supply away from the digestive tract to the muscles for action, increases heart rate, increases blood pressure, increases breathing and heightens the sensitivity of all the nerves in your body to be alert for a threat. Including the nerves in your gut. If you already have a sensitive gut being in fight or flight reduces your ability to digest food properly and amplifies the sensitivity of the nerves in your gut.


What you can do about it all

When it comes to IBS, there is not one thing that is the answer for everyone. For most people it’s a mix of strategies that include diet, supplements/medications and psychological strategies. In our experience at Everyday Nutrition, its actually people who have a toolbox of all these strategies that get best results. You can read about the best diet for IBS here.

What you need to know about stress in your body, is that the body doesn’t really understand English. Instead, it tends to understand and respond better to actions and feelings. So just telling your body that you’re in a safe space and there is no need to be stressed doesn’t work. But you already know that! This means that to get the message across that you are safe, you need to use actions and feelings.



Movement is a non-negotiable if you have IBS and for many good reasons:

  • Movement aids digestion and helps the digestive tract work better
  • Activities like short, or longer, walks outside and yoga are an opportunity for mindful moments and fresh air that soothe the soul and help you feel calm.
  • When stress activates your sympathetic nervous system, it creates energy to prepare you to fight or flight. You need to use that energy so the body can relax again.
  • Singing, dancing and other rhythmic movements target the vagus nerve and tell your body you’re in a safe space.


Diaphragmatic breathing:

You can’t change your heart rate or blood pressure at will, but you can change your breathing. Before you eat place your hand on your stomach and take 3 deep diaphragmatic breaths feeling your stomach rise and fall. Slow deep breaths target the vagus nerve and tell your body you’re in a safe place, switching on the parasympathetic, or “Rest & Digest” nervous system.


Cognitive behavioural therapy:

CBT has been shown to help IBS by reframing the way you think about your symptoms, which changes the way you experience your symptoms.



Hypnotherapy is well evidenced to calm IBS by targeting the nerves in the gut and teaching them new tricks. The cool thing about the nervous system is that it has “neuroplasticity” this means nerves grow and learn. You can teach them to be less sensitive. You can read more about hypnotherapy here.



Mindfulness is the act of bringing yourself to the here and now and enjoying the moment you’re in. You may spend a minute looking at how the wind is blowing the leaves in the trees, feeling how soft your cat’s fur is and how she rumbles when she purrs or how that piece of chocolate melts in your mouth coating your taste buds. These “glimmers” are endless and all around us.


Relaxing activities:

Any other activities that you enjoy and allow you to take time out to do things that help you feel calm and relaxed. Think about things like reading, colouring, listening to music, jigsaw puzzles, talking to a friend.


Stop journaling your food or symptoms:

If you are journaling things every day you are increasing awareness of them and intensifying your focus on the nerves in your gut. Instead, try scrap paper recording where if you think that a food bothers you, you write it on a scrap of paper and put it in an envelope. The next time you see your dietitian, you open the envelope and look for patterns with someone who knows what to look for and how these foods may interrelate.


Seek professional guidance: 

A specialist IBS dietitian can help you create a personalised and holistic plan that encompasses diet, supplements (if necessary) and psychological strategies so that you get the best results in the shortest time. Book an appointment here. 


Final Thoughts

IBS can be a frustrating, but understanding the gut-brain connection and the role of stress can empower you to take charge of your health. By incorporating a variety of strategies that includes psychological approaches you can create a personalised plan that will calm your gut and let you enjoy food and life again.


Remember, you are not alone in this journey. With knowledge, self-compassion, and a commitment to finding what works for you, you can effectively manage your IBS and live a full and vibrant life.



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Meet Joanna


Joanna is a passionate advocate, communicator and educator in the fields of gut health, nutrition and wellness.