Does your mental health have an impact on your IBS? Does being stressed and anxious trigger a flare up? And, if so, how can you better manage it? In this post for Mental Health Awareness Week (13-19 May) we explain more.

IBS is closely linked with stress and anxiety. It can fluctuate according to the stresses and changes in your life. Research studies have shown a link between higher stress and anxiety and increased IBS. This is often made worse when people are anxious about having a flare up.

“Your gut and your stress levels are inextricably linked,” says Dr Smale, gastroenterologist and medical adviser to The IBS Network. “In fact, the gut is the organ with the greatest number of nerve cells in the body, even more than the brain and we know the gut has the greatest quantity of serotonin within it which is the neurotransmitter we associate with mood and happiness.

“So you can imagine if your gut is going awry, those feelings will influence your emotions and vice versa. That’s why we see a lot of depression, anxiety and mood issues in people with gut problems – but we rarely know which came first, the mood problems or the gut issues, they both impact each other.”

So what can you do to reduce stress and anxiety?
People deal with stress in different ways. It’s important to find something that works for you, whether that’s reading, running, or doing a yoga class.

We asked our members what works for them. Answers included relaxing with a hot water bottle, gardening, reading, listening to music, walking the dog, and mindfulness classes.

Find time to relax

Whatever you choose try to incorporate it into your daily routine. This is one of the most effective ways to stop stress from gradually increasing until it becomes a problem.

Keep a Wellness Diary

We’ve designed a wellness diary to help you better understand your IBS symptoms and triggers. The 12-week diary helps you to think about food and mood. You can note how you are feeling and what you are eating, which will help you to identify any patterns that emerge. Having worked through the diary you will be able to share the information with your healthcare professional and together discuss any patterns.

Improve your sleep routine

Dr Smale says a number of lifestyle factors can influence the way our guts function. He suggests starting by looking at your sleep routine

“Lots of people sleep poorly, and that has a significant impact on the way your bowels function. It’s all very well me saying you just need to get eight hours of sleep every night, because in reality that is really difficult.

“Getting enough sleep is difficult for a number of reasons, such as having busy lives or because when we go to bed we don’t always have the best sleep hygiene or bedtime routine, meaning the quality of our sleep isn’t always that good.”

To help make sure you get a good night’s sleep try to go to bed at the same time each night and avoid bright lights, including your mobile phone, before bed.

Include exercise into your daily life

Daily exercise can be very effective in helping with IBS symptoms such as flatulence, bloating and constipation.

Dr Smale says: “The NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidance, suggests that we should all be doing 150 minutes of regular exercise weekly. Exercise that gets you out of breath such as jogging or speed walking at intensity done for half an hour a few times a week helps both bowel function and heart rate.”

Exercises could include swimming, running, cycling, walking, and going to the gym.

“Exercise is good for IBS for a number of reasons as firstly it has effects on gut motility and function. Plus, the more exercise you do the better you will sleep which has positive benefits on the way our brains and our guts both communicate with each other.

“Exercise also helps to establish those normal patterns and normal function, both in terms of our brains and in terms of our guts.”

Any questions?
If you would like to speak to one of The IBS Network’s healthcare specialists, members can submit questions through ‘Ask the Experts’ or call our IBS helpline. More information available here.