Why is my IBS worse when I am stressed?

Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
Ask Emma

26 February 2019

What causes stress?

The Mental Health Foundation’s 2018 survey reported that debt, ill-health, housing, body image and pressure to succeed were all causes of stress for those participating in the study.1

Unfortunately, many people struggle with stress on a daily basis, which can have a knock-on effect on their mood and overall health, including conditions such as IBS. Short-term stress can be useful: when driving in rush-hour traffic, for example, it can help you to stay focused on pressing your brakes in time when the cars in front of you stop abruptly.

However, long-term stress caused by issues such as money problems, family relationships and a heavy workload can have a knock-on effect on your health as your body is not designed to cope with stress for long periods of time.

How does the body react to stress?

Stress essentially triggers a fight-or-flight response within the body, with blood flowing to the brain, heart, lungs and muscles. This causes our senses to be sharpened, our muscles to flood with oxygen and allows us to make a quick escape from stress, which once would have manifested as a temporary, physical danger such as a large animal.

Adrenaline and other stress hormones are responsible for this diversion of blood into specific organs and, as a result, other bodily processes slow down because the body does not deem them to be important in a potentially life-or-death situation.

One of the processes which can be affected by chronic stress is digestion. What’s on the menu for lunch is going to be the last thing on your mind as you’re fleeing from a pack of hungry lions. As blood is diverted towards certain organs, it leaves the digestive tract and digestion becomes disrupted.

Now, this is all well and good when you’re trying to escape a potentially life-threatening situation, but it is not sustainable or helpful when you are experiencing continuous stress over looming work deadlines or impending bills. Our bodies are not programmed to withstand stress over a long period of time, so it’s no wonder that it can cause a host of health issues. 

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How does stress affect IBS symptoms?

When blood is diverted away from the digestive system, the digestive processes will be disrupted. As I’ve said, this isn’t too much of a problem when stress is experienced temporarily, in short bursts. However, this is obviously not sustainable long-term and can cause a great deal of discomfort and worsen symptoms if you suffer from IBS already.

1. Stomach acid

Stomach acid is very important, and often people worry about having too much. However, both too much and too little stomach acid can cause discomfort, including acid reflux, belching and nausea, all of which can be symptoms of IBS. 

Unfortunately, stress can make these symptoms even worse. Short-term stress can cause an increase in stomach acid; long-term stress can cause a decrease in your levels of stomach acid. Without sufficient levels of stomach acid, food won’t be digested properly, so all sorts of complications can arise.

2. Bloating and wind

Other symptoms that can be caused by on-going stress are bloating, flatulence and belching, especially if stomach acid levels are reduced and food is not broken down properly. Stress can also cause a disruption in the rhythmic contractions of the gut, meaning that food moves too quickly thorough the digestive tract and air can become trapped.

What is more, when we are stressed our breathing rate can increase and we can end up taking in excess air.  The same can happen if we are very busy and eating meals on the go. To avoid excess wind and bloating, it’s important to take your time while eating and avoid working through your lunch break or shovelling food down when you’re in a rush.

3. Cramping and diarrhoea

These symptoms are common when the body is under stress, as the sympathetic nervous system takes over and the digestive system is effectively switched off. Again, the gut contractions become disturbed and can go into spasm, causing pain and looser stools.

4. Urgency

An urgent need to use the toilet can also be exacerbated by stress or anxiety. This is thought to be linked to the brain-gut axis becoming disrupted and causing an urgent need to expel urine or faeces. 

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Why is my IBS worse when I'm stressed?

As we can see from above, stress can wreak havoc on your digestive system and cause all sorts of trouble which can lead to the development of symptoms associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Stress can also exacerbate existing IBS symptoms. You may notice that certain symptoms appear worse if you are stressed about an upcoming social event, or if a deadline at work is fast approaching. In these situations, you might find yourself needing the toilet more regularly and experiencing stomach cramps and spasms because stress is throwing your digestive system out of kilter.

What is more, your IBS symptoms could be causing you a lot of stress if you are concerned about always being close to a toilet, or dealing with embarrassing symptoms presenting themselves at work. 

This vicious cycle of stress causing symptoms, and vice versa, can be hard to break and you might feel slightly overwhelmed if you’re not sure where to start with tackling your symptoms. You should first try to focus on your stress levels – this means you can determine which of your symptoms are amped up by stress. You may find that once your stress levels are balanced, your symptoms are a lot easier to manage.

How can I tackle stress?

There are lots of things you can do to try to minimise stress in your daily life which could, in turn, help to relieve difficult IBS symptoms. Here are a few simple tips:

1. Try AvenaCalm

If you are struggling with stress and are looking for relief, you can try AvenaCalm. It’s an organically grown herbal remedy made from the green leafy parts of the oat plant which can be used to help ease stress and anxiety. This can also be used to help you sleep if stress is keeping you awake at night.

By tackling your stress head-on with a gently herbal remedy, you can help to ease nasty IBS symptoms which are caused or made worse by stressful situations. 

2. Practice relaxation techniques

Another way you can help to ease stress is by practising relaxation techniques. Different methods of relaxation will work for different people, so you may wish to try a few different techniques to find what works best for you. You can try going for a walk, taking some time for yourself to read a good book or cooking your favourite meal.

Techniques such as meditation are also a great way of relieving stress and calming a troubled mind. During meditation or mindfulness, you focus on your breathing in an effort to slow it down and allow your body and muscles to relax. You also learn to quieten your mind and turn your thoughts away from issues which are causing you stress. You can read more about using breathing techniques to cope with stress here.

With practice, these simple but effective relaxation techniques can help you to remove yourself from your worries and enjoy some peace of mind. In turn, as your mind and body relax, this should ease IBS symptoms caused by stress.

3. Talk

Some people find that talking through their worries with a close friend or a professional can help to ease some of the stress they are feeling. If your worries are money-related, it may help to talk to a professional for some financial advice.

Or, if your stress is caused by more personal issues, talking to a friend or relative could help to relieve the burden and they may be able to help you put your worries into perspective. You may find that you’re not the only person feeling stressed over certain issues, and sometimes sharing a burden can help to lighten your load and help you to realise that there are more positives in your life than you initially thought.

Talking through your troubles with someone else is another great way of not only relaxing your mind, but also your body and can have a positive effect on IBS symptoms.

4. Avoid stimulants

If stress is a problem for you, cut out stimulants such as coffee or energy drinks from your diet. Caffeine releases adrenaline into the body, which is responsible for activating our fight-or-flight response and unleashing stress onto the body and mind.

Too much caffeine will leave you feeling jittery and can cause heart palpitations, which is exactly what you want to avoid if you’re feeling stressed! Try switching out your morning coffee with a relaxing herbal tea and give your body a chance to relax, instead of starting off your day with a shot of adrenaline which will exacerbate your existing symptoms. 

5. Try Silicol gel

If you think that IBS is the cause of your stress then you can try Silicol gel. Made with silicic acid, this remedy binds to toxic substances such as pathogens. It coats and soothes the digestive tract and can provide relief from constipation, diarrhoea, stomach ache, flatulence and nausea.

By protecting your gut and soothing your IBS symptoms with Silicol gel, you can help to relieve stress and worry caused by painful or embarrassing symptoms.


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Here’s what I recommend

As the A.Vogel Digestion advisor, I recommend Silicol® Gel and Molkosan® Original, to help with your IBS symptoms.

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Did you know?

How you eat rather than what you eat can also trigger your IBS. From not chewing your food enough to even how you sit while you eat can all impact affect your IBS!

7 simple eating habits to help ease IBS

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