If you’ve ever experienced butterflies in your stomach, a nervous dash to the toilet, or feeling nauseous before a big event, then you’ve experienced the gut-brain connection in action.
This gut-brain connection can help to explain why mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression can cause further digestive distress, especially in individuals living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Understanding Stress and the Gut-Brain Connection
The gut-brain connection is a two-way highway between our brain and our digestive system, connected by the vagus nerve. Through this nerve, the brain constantly sends information down to the gut to instruct it how to function, such as to slow down our digestion or to signal a symptom such as pain. Similarly, the nerves in our gut send signals back to the brain to trigger changes in our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, such as that ‘gut feeling’ you get when you’re about to get bad news.
Researchers think that this gut-brain connection developed many, many years ago, to help us survive. In evolutionary times, when our body was under stress in the face of danger—such as being attacked by a predator—our body’s automatic “fight or flight” response would get activated. This protective mechanism worked to keep us alive by impacting our digestion, through reducing blood flow to the stomach to slow down food processing or speeding up intestinal contractions to quickly empty out the extra waste. As a result, our body was left with more energy to fight the predator or to run away faster.
Because this connection between our brain and our digestive system became a survival response, even though we rarely face predators today, our bodies continue to engage the fight or flight response during times of stress. Unfortunately though, we face even more stressors nowadays – from the constant reminders of bad news in the media, to the everyday hassle of managing busy work and personal schedules. So, our gut is being constantly exposed to stress. In some individuals, this exposure to high or chronic levels of stress has been found to contribute to the development of IBS.
Mental Wellbeing and Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Around 1 in 30 Australians live with IBS, a condition associated with symptoms such as abdominal pain, changes in stool type and frequency, and bloating, experienced frequently over a number of months. Although factors such as diet and genetics also play a role in the condition, IBS is classified as a gut-brain disorder, meaning that it is a condition that is highly influenced by the brain. A recent study found that IBS is three times more common in individuals with anxiety, depression, and stress. For many individuals, this means symptoms are noticeably impacted by their psychological state. For example, you may have a job interview that you’re nervous about, which activates the stress response, triggering off an IBS flare-up. Then, you may naturally get more stressed about your symptoms – you don’t want them happening in the middle of the interview! Unfortunately, this worry continues to trigger off even more symptoms, making the lead up to that interview so much worse. You might even notice that once the interview is done, your symptoms seem so much better – classic!
Getting Help for IBS
Given the role of the gut-brain connection, managing your mental health remains a cornerstone of IBS treatment. Some strategies to lessen the impact of stress on your gut may include:
- Diaphragmatic breathing: Diaphragmatic breathing helps to gently massage the digestive organs to improve pain and motility, and also activates the body’s relaxation response. Although many forms of breathing exercises exist, the key is to find one that helps you. As a starting point, apps such as Calm or Headspace which have guided breathing exercises can help to build in brief moments of relaxation throughout your day.
- Physical movement: A key way we release physical stress in our bodies is through moving it. Gentle movement also helps to promote efficient digestion, such as a slow walk in nature, dancing around your house to music, or a yoga class.
- Laughter: Laughing signals to our brain that we are safe and to turn off the stress response – after all, you wouldn’t be laughing if you were standing in front of a snake! Tapping into activities such as scrolling funny animal videos or watching stand-up gigs may help to promote relaxation.
Aside from these tools, evidence-based psychological therapies that address the gut-brain connection such as mindfulness-based interventions and gut-directed hypnotherapy can be effective for IBS. Working with a psychologist who specializes in the gut-brain connection or to build up your stress-management tools may help to live more peacefully with IBS.
Oka, P., Parr, H., Barberio, B., Black, C. J., Savarino, E. V., & Ford, A. C. (2020). Global prevalence of irritable bowel syndrome according to Rome III or IV criteria: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Gastroenterology & hepatology, 5(10), 908-917.
Zamani, M., Alizadeh‐Tabari, S., & Zamani, V. (2019). Systematic review with meta‐analysis: the prevalence of anxiety and depression in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 50(2), 132-143.
Avnee is passionate about helping her clients to achieve a greater psychological and physical wellbeing through gaining a better understanding into their thought patterns, feelings, and behaviours. She has a particular interest in supporting adults affected by cancer and other chronic health issues to cope with the physical and emotional impact of these conditions and improve their quality of life. Call RWA psychology for an appointment with Avnee or one of our other psychologists.