Stress and Anxiety:

The causes of IBS are not well understood, but researchers believe a combination of physical and mental health problems lead to IBS:

IBS and the brain-gut axis

One of the causes of IBS put forward by researchers is ‘dysfunction of the brain-gut axis’ (BGA). Or to put it another way, IBS is a disorder of the BGA. So what is the relationship between IBS and the BGA? And what is the brain-gut axis in the first place?

Hidden in the walls of your gut is your “second brain” and the two brains talk to each other. Stress and anxiety disrupt the signals between the brain and the gut and impact on the efficacy of the digestive system.

Stress disrupts the brain-gut axis, leading to changes in gastrointestinal functioning: the movement of digestive contents along the digestive tract and the release of gastrointestinal hormones.

A ‘dysfunction’ of the BGA results in a breakdown in normal digestive function, leading to diarrhoea or constipation.

To put it another way, the BGA links the emotional and cognitive thought centres of the brain with the GI tract. This is why stress, thought, emotion, and psychological problems can affect gut sensation, feeling motility, and secretion, and why sensations arising in the gut can affect the central brain and lead to pain or to changes in mood or behaviour.

We all suffer from STRESS and ANXIETY!

Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension – a reaction to demanding circumstances. We’ve all felt it. It’s as much a part of the modern world as smartphones or global warming.

There are multiple psychological factors that influence the mental state of IBS sufferers, see below for a few examples:

  1. Day-to-day stress:
    • work stress (i.e. new job interviews, deadlines, performance reviews),
    • study stress (i.e. exams, assignments),
    • financial stress (i.e. car repairs, budgets, economic changes),
    • family or relationship stress,
    • even getting held up in a traffic jam,
    • the stress of planning a journey,
    • the stress before competing in an event,
    • sleep deprivation (i.e. new mothers).
  2. Irritating stress:
    • losing your keys,
    • being late for meetings due to traffic jams,
    • even breaking a nail or shoe heel
  3. Extreme stress:
    • Accidents (i.e. car, physical injury)
    • attacked physically or emotionally
    • illness (i.e. cancer, diabetes)
    • death in the family
    • divorce

These experiences (or even the thought of them) may start chemical changes or imbalances in the brain that may in turn influence gut motility – the contraction and release of muscles around the intestines and colon that move material through the gut.

These stress-related chemical changes may also influence the perception of pain signals sent to the brain from nerve endings in the intestines – “visceral hypersensitivity”. In turn, these reactions have a negative effect on the workings of an IBS sufferer’s gut.

Fortunately, stress is something you can do something about: see our TIPS section for “Help with Stress”

We have now identified various causes of IBS and considered the effects of Stress and Anxiety on IBS sufferers, we now need a plan of action to help your doctor correctly diagnose your condition, see our suggested TRACK, ACT and MAINTAIN approach.

Now, track your own Triggers:

  • We suggest that you download the IBS trigger diary to help you pinpoint what your triggers are, as well as to track your symptoms, exercise, and eating patterns.
  • From here you can develop safe recipe lists and build an eating plan that reduces your chances of an IBS attack.