You’re sick of planning your life around your IBS symptoms. I get it. And while there’s no easy one-size-fits-all answer that will make your symptoms magically disappear, there are lots of things you can do.
Part of what makes IBS challenging is that every case is different. It’s not like strep throat where there’s a specific pathogen and a tried-and-true treatment plan that works for pretty much everybody. IBS is a collection of symptoms that varies from person to person. And there isn’t just one obvious root cause for IBS. Everyone’s a little different.
Your IBS could be caused by:
😕 GI muscles that don’t properly contract and move food along efficiently
😕 A bout with severe diarrhea caused by a virus or bacteria that triggers IBS
😕 Bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine, or SIBO
😕 Changes in the bacteria that live in your large intestine (microbiome)
😕 Childhood trauma or a stressful early life event, or chronic stress
Just because there is so much variability among those who have IBS, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about it. IBS is a treatable condition. I should know — I have worked with literally hundreds of patients (over 1000 now actually) who came to me because they were suffering with IBS symptoms.
The key to calming down your IBS is figuring out what your unique root cause actually is. But if you’re not there yet, that’s okay! There’s still a lot you can do. Last week we talked about problematic foods that may be making your IBS symptoms worse. This week we’re going to focus on some non-food strategies to improve your IBS symptoms.
Stress Management for IBS Symptoms
Your brain and your gut are very closely connected. So when something affects your brain, you feel it in your gut. But you already know this. There’s a reason we talk about having butterflies in our stomach when we’re nervous.
Science is learning more every day about this gut-brain connection. But what it means for you on a practical level is that strong emotions and stress can impact your IBS. Life happens. And you can’t control everything. So stress is a thing. But if you can find ways to reduce and manage your stress, it can have an impact on the severity of your IBS symptoms.
Here are some things you can do to prevent and manage stress:
Look at the source of your stress with curiosity and see if there’s anything you can do about it. Some things just happen and we have no control. But oftentimes there are things we can do to reduce stress in a difficult situation. Is there someone you need to improve your communication with? Is there a way out of a tough situation? Can you look for a new job? Can you go to therapy or couples counseling?
Finding ways to reduce stress in life is totally individual. But it’s worth taking the time to look at your biggest stressors and taking a proactive approach. But for the stress you can’t prevent, there are ways you can reduce its impact on your body — and on your IBS.
Sometimes you aren’t able to change the source of your stress. At that point your best bet is probably to learn to handle the stress better. Here are some ideas:
If therapy is available to you, try it out. A good therapist can help you see your situation more clearly and arm you with techniques to deal with stress. Addressing mental health is a well-established and effective treatment for IBS. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in particular has been widely studied and proven to provide significant and long-lasting symptom improvement.
Meditation and Mindfulness
Learning to be present in the moment can help you feel better and calm both your nervous system and emotions. When we’re stressed we get stuck in fight or flight mode. And that impacts digestion. Techniques like meditation, grounding, and mindfulness exercises can help you shift out of stress-mode and into a calmer state of mind and body.
Yoga is a gentle and accessible form of exercise that combines physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to help reduce stress and improve overall well-being.
Research shows that practicing yoga can reduce stress hormones like cortisol and improve your body’s response to stress. By focusing on deep breathing and gentle movements, yoga can help calm the mind and relax the body, both of which can improve IBS symptoms. Plus, yoga is exercise — which is also helpful for IBS.
Regular exercise can improve bowel function, help regulate your digestion, and help you manage stress. I know exercise is a word that conjures up unpleasant images for many people. But I’m not talking about spending hours sweating in the gym or joining Crossfit — unless that’s your thing. Exercise can be intense and athletic. But gentle movement like a walk or the aforementioned yoga or Tai Chi can be just as beneficial.
Poor sleep and IBS often go hand-in-hand. In fact, 40% of IBS patients have trouble sleeping. Diarrhea and stomach pain can keep you up at night, interrupting sleep patterns. And poor sleep can affect mental health and even increase pain.
It is possible to improve your sleep by improving your sleep hygiene. Here are some strategies that might help:
😴 Avoid napping. Or if you need one, keep it short.
😴 Make your bedroom a sleep oasis — lower the temperature at night, use comfortable bedding, install blackout curtains, fall asleep to the soothing sounds of a noise machine, etc…
😴 Establish a bedtime routine — a hot bath, a soothing cup of herbal tea, or a good book (but maybe not too good) can give your brain the message that sleep time is coming.
😴 Exercise — Yes, it helps with sleep too.
😴 Have screen curfew — Looking at screens late at night can interfere with your natural sleep (circadian) rhythms. And doom scrolling is certainly not going to help you relax. If you must look at screens at night, consider some glasses that block blue light. They won’t help with the doom scrolling, but they will protect your circadian rhythms.
Most people don’t drink enough water. And if you have IBS, that can contribute to your symptoms. Dehydration can lead to constipation and bloating. But drinking enough water can both help regulate bowel movements and improve stool consistency.
How much water should you drink? I recommend drinking half your body weight in ounces. So if you weigh 150 pounds, shoot for 75 ounces of water per day. And to protect your digestion, I recommend drinking most of it away from meal time.
Find the Root Cause of Your IBS
The tips above can absolutely help you manage your IBS symptoms. But they won’t solve the underlying problem that’s causing your IBS. Regardless of what started your IBS or how your symptoms are showing up, there are imbalances that are causing the problems. And most of the time, these imbalances and issues can be addressed and improved.
The best way to deal with your IBS symptoms is to figure out what’s causing them and deal with that underlying issue. And that’s exactly what I do! If you’re ready to use a dietary approach to address the root cause of your IBS, then click the button below.