Stress and IBS: the gut-brain connection
IBS is a disorder of the “gut-brain connection”. What this means is that the communication between the gut and the brain is not working the way it should. We all have experienced “butterflies” in our stomachs when anxious about a special event. That’s the brain and the gut talking! But in people with IBS, this talk is amplified. As a consequence, the response to a stimulus (let’s say anxiety about a job interview, or eating a meal) is exaggerated.
Indeed, the brain can misinterpret normal signals from the digestive tract, causing the body to become extra sensitive to stimuli like stress (or food). As a result, people with IBS may experience tummy pain and bloating after meals, urgent trips to the bathroom, and visible distention of the abdomen. Or they are not being able to use the toilet for days!
For instance, I’ve heard from many of my clients that their symptoms get worse when they are overwhelmed by their job deadlines. Or when they are having issues with their partner or their children. Conversely, many have also told me that when they go on vacation, and they can finally relax, their symptoms seem to magically disappear. And they are able to eat anything they want! This speaks to the power of our mind over gastrointestinal symptoms. It also gives us a cue to how we can take control, instead of letting our stress control us.
5 Things you can do (beyond diet) to find relief from gut symptoms
There is a lot of research showing that techniques that help us be more in a state of “rest and digest” (by activating the parasympathetic system) instead of being always in a “fight or flight” state (the sympathetic system) can help reduce gastrointestinal symptoms in people with IBS. Here are 5 strategies that have been shown to reduce IBS symptoms by targeting the gut-brain connection and activating the parasympathetic system.
1. Diaphragmatic breathing
You may also know it by the name of belly breathing or abdominal breathing. It’s the easiest and quickest way to activate the parasympathetic system and calm us down. We can use it any time we feel overwhelmed or anxious. But it is especially helpful to practice just before eating. It can help us digest better and minimize or avoid experiencing gut symptoms.
In addition to activating the “rest and digest” mode, some yoga poses can stretch and compress the muscles in our intestines. This can help with constipation and the gentle release of trapped gas. Think about twisting poses (seated or lying down), such as the child pose, and happy baby. If you are new to yoga, look for the help of an instructor to ensure you are practicing the poses correctly.
Meditation can help reduce abdominal pain and bloating and improve IBS symptoms both in the short and long term. It can seem daunting at first. Or you may think you can’t do it because your mind is racing with thoughts, and give up quickly. However, the beauty of meditation is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. Just taking the time to practice counts. If you are new to meditation, a good place to start is to use a meditation app. All it takes to start is 10 minutes of practice a day.
Journaling about thoughts and deep emotions regarding your IBS experience and other issues can help you improve your symptoms. The practice of journaling can help you gain insights into your thought processes and recognize the differences between what is just a thought versus reality. In addition, getting it “all out” on paper can help dissipate pent-up emotions. Once we write our thoughts and emotions down, we start to organize them and think about them in a different way as well.
5. Gut-directed hypnotherapy
This is not what you may have seen in a Hollywood movie but real science. It’s a type of hypnotherapy targeted at improving gut symptoms. Essentially, it helps retrain how the brain and the gut communicate. By improving the gut-brain communication, the response to stimuli such as stress or food is reduced and so are the gut symptoms. In addition, it helps reduce anxiety and depression and improves the overall quality of life, which also impacts IBS symptoms. You can try this with the help of a gut psychologist trained in gut-directed hypnotherapy. Or you can use a gut-directed hypnotherapy app.
In conclusion, food is not the only trigger for IBS. When I work with my clients, I take a holistic view of symptom management. In addition to helping them figure out their dietary triggers, I address lifestyle triggers. I recommend strategies (including all the above – and more!) to help with IBS symptoms. And give my clients tools they can implement in their own life.
If you are suffering from IBS symptoms and want a clear roadmap to finding freedom from IBS once and for all, let’s chat about how I can help!