Sleep & IBS – 5 Tips to Improve Your Sleep

Published on: 10/11/2021

Can a Lack of Sleep Affect IBS?

Did you know that how well (or poorly) you sleep can impact your IBS symptoms? Yes, a lack of sleep can have a big impact on IBS. It may come as a surprise that your diet is not the only factor affecting gut symptoms like bloating and abdominal pain. But diet is only one (although major) piece of the IBS puzzle.

Several other lifestyle factors can impact IBS symptoms, including sleep. We need to address all of them when trying to find long-term relief from IBS. In a previous blog post, I discussed the importance of the gut-brain connection and how stress can greatly affect our gut. It’s now time to discuss how sleep – or lack of sleep – can impact IBS, and talk about how we can improve our sleep to maximize IBS symptoms management.

Lack of Sleep & IBS Symptoms

We know that poor sleep is quite prevalent in the US, with about one-third of adult Americans suffering from insomnia. In people with IBS, poor sleep is even more common, affecting as many as 50%. Why? We know that gut symptoms can definitely impact sleep. In addition, lack of sleep can increase pain in general as well as stress hormone levels (which in turn impact gut symptoms).

There is also evidence that poor sleep can worsen visceral hypersensitivity (the increased sensitivity of the nerves around the gut, a hallmark of IBS) and gut symptoms, creating a vicious cycle. Indeed, research comparing people with IBS to people who don’t suffer from functional gut disorders showed that poor sleep is correlated with worsened gut symptoms. 

Even though they slept more hours per night, people with IBS woke up more frequently during the night and woke up feeling less rested than the “healthy controls”. The higher the number of waking episodes, the worse their abdominal pain and GI distress were the next day. Not surprisingly, poor sleep was also directly linked to lower quality of life and worsened mood.

5 Tips to Improve Your Sleep

That’s enough bad news. Let’s look at what we can do about improving our sleep. Although the research directly investigating whether improving sleep can be helpful in decreasing IBS symptoms is in its infancy, there is encouraging evidence that it can improve pain in general. As importantly, we know sleep can increase stress hormones like cortisol, and that this is tied to the stress response that can trigger IBS symptoms. Even more encouraging is the fact that there are proven strategies we can use to improve our sleep. Here are a few practical tips.

Tip # 1 – Maintain a regular sleep routine

That’s right, no more staying up past midnight and sleeping in until 10 am on weekends while waking up at 7:00 am Monday-Friday. Ideally, you want to go to bed and wake up approximately at the same time (give and take half an hour). It will help you fall asleep and wake up more easily.

Tip # 2 – Make your bedroom a relaxing environment

Keep your bedroom dark, tidy, and quiet. Lights, clutter, and noise can disrupt your sleep and prevent you from relaxing. The ideal temperature is around 65°F, as our body prefers to fall and stay asleep in cool environments (neither too hot nor too cold). Calming scents, such as lavender, can further help in relaxing the body (you could try an essential oil diffuser).

Tip # 3 – Create a bedtime relaxation ritual

This can help you leave the day behind and unwind before bed. Some ideas include: doing some gentle stretching, listening to relaxing music, taking a warm (but not hot) bath, using a guided meditation app, or reading a (real) book in dim light.

Tip # 4 – Avoid sleep disruptors

Sleep disruptors include:

  • Electronics (phone, tablets, computers, television) at least one hour before bed.
  • Stimulants: avoid caffeine after 3 pm (for some people even earlier), and consume alcohol no later than 3 hours before going to bed. Although it may make you drowsier, it ultimately affects the quality of your sleep.
  • Going to be too full or too hungry.  Large meals can cause indigestion, and being hungry can distract you from falling asleep. If needed, have a light snack closer to bedtime.

Tip # 5 – Get some natural light in the morning

A good night of sleep starts in the morning! Whether it’s a short walk or some stretching on your deck or yard, exposing your eyes to natural light soon after you wake up can help reset your body’s internal clock which can make you drowsier at bedtime.

In summary, lack of sleep can affect IBS symptoms. It is important to strive and have enough good quality sleep when trying to find relief from IBS symptoms. I hope this overview may have helped you identify any areas that may need improvement. If your sleeplessness is persistent in spite of your good sleep habits, talk to your doctor for additional expert support.

If you need more help with finding relief from life-disrupting IBS symptoms, let’s chat!

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Book a free IBS Clarity Call today!

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I’m a registered dietitian with a passion for helping women with IBS find their way back to eating without fear of painful gut symptoms and without unnecessary diet restrictions.

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