IBS and Mental Health: What's the Connection?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common condition that affects around 11% of the population. In addition to digestive problems, many people with IBS also suffer from mental health issues. In this article, we explore the relationship between IBS and mental health. We also offer some tips on how to manage the two conditions.
How IBS Can Affect a Person’s Mental Health
An estimated 54% to 94% of people with IBS also suffer from mental health problems. The most common of these is generalized anxiety disorder but depression is also a frequent occurrence. Furthermore, some sources have linked IBS with other mental health conditions, including panic disorder, PTSD and schizophrenia.
The exact link between mental health and IBS remains unclear. What we do know is that the digestive system has a high concentration of nerve cells and also produces serotonin. This is the neurotransmitter associated with mood and emotional wellbeing. Because of this, some people refer to the gut as the “second brain”.
We also know that many people with IBS find that their symptoms become worse during periods of stress and anxiety. This phenomenon is most likely the result of changes in the way the brain and the intestines communicate with one another. However, scientists have yet to discover the precise way in which IBS affects mental health. There is even some confusion regarding whether IBS causes mental health problems or if it is the other way around.
Theories include the idea that people with IBS have more sensitive nervous systems, or that changes in the microbiome play a role. Another possible explanation is that low serotonin levels can cause constipation, while raised serotonin levels can cause diarrhea.
Also, people with IBS often feel stressed or anxious as a result of their symptoms. They may worry about having a flare up while away from home, or needing to give up foods they love. IBS can also significantly impact a person’s work or social life, thus leading to further stress and anxiety.
Mental Healthcare Options for People with IBS
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways that people with IBS can manage their symptoms and improve their mental wellbeing.
Manage Your IBS Symptoms
If a person can successfully control their IBS symptoms, they may experience less stress on a daily basis. Some potentially helpful strategies include making dietary changes and using medication to manage symptoms.
As well as changing what they eat, people with IBS may benefit from changing how they eat too. For example:
- Eating little and often
- Not skipping meals
- Not eating on the go
- Chewing food properly
- Relaxing for a few minutes after eating
Many people with IBS also find it helpful to keep a diary to see whether specific foods trigger their symptoms.
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Take Relaxation Time
Finding time to relax is one of the best ways to manage stress and anxiety. Many people find relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation, or yoga helpful. However, doing anything relaxing and enjoyable can help. This may be something as simple as taking a warm bath or curling up with a good book.
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to keep stress under control. It also benefits IBS symptoms, as it supports healthy movement within the bowels. Any kind of exercise can provide benefits depending on an individual’s personal preference and fitness level. You do not need to run a marathon or become a professional athlete; even a brisk walk every day can help.
Maintain Proper Sleep Patterns
Getting enough sleep is another great way to improve mental health. However, it is not always easy for people suffering from anxiety, depression, or stress. Some of the best ways to improve your sleep include:
- Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day
- Ensuring your bedroom is cool, comfortable, dark and quiet
- Exercising earlier in the day and doing something relaxing before bed
- Avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and evening
- Not eating or drinking too much late at night
- Not looking at electronic screens in the evening
Talking therapies, such as counselling, psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can all help to support good mental health. One advantage is having a safe place to discuss any worries on a regular basis. Therapies like CBT take things a step further by teaching coping strategies and how to change unhelpful thinking habits.
Support groups are a great place to discuss IBS and mental health issues without having to pay a professional. Although you might not get the same level of care, it can be a comfort to know that other people are in the same situation. If you cannot find a support group in your local area, there are many online forums you can try instead.
Some antidepressants, including tricyclic antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may be beneficial. They work by altering the balance of neurochemicals in the nervous system to help with both IBS and mental health issues. Talk to a physician to determine whether this treatment is appropriate for you.
Some people find complementary therapies such as hypnotherapy, acupuncture and massage therapy helpful. Although there is not much clinical evidence that they can treat IBS, most people find these therapies relaxing and enjoyable.
The bottom line is that there are many ways to improve both IBS and mental health. However, what works for one person might not be effective for the next. Therefore, it may be necessary to experiment to find the right combination for you and make sure to talk to your doctor.