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Anxiety and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

Anxiety and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Anxiety may be a mental health issue, but it has a powerful effect on your body chemistry. The stress from IBS changes your hormone production, alters your immune system, and in some cases, upsets your digestive tract.

So it comes as little surprise that anxiety has been linked to contributing to the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), also known as "spastic colon" - a chronic condition that causes bloating, gastrointestinal discomforts, erratic bowel movements, chronic abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation.

IBS is diagnosed when these symptoms are present without a medical cause, and while scientists believe that there are likely other factors that go into IBS, most agree that anxiety and stress contribute to its development.

Before Diagnosing Yourself With IBS

Self-diagnosis is always a bad idea. If you believe that you're suffering from IBS, check with your doctor. There are several harmless and harmful diseases that cause many of the same symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and only a doctor can rule out these conditions.

Also, many of the symptoms of IBS are also seen in those with intolerance to certain types of foods. It may be in your best interests to investigate your food intolerances. Make sure that you're not sensitive to foods with gluten, certain grains, dairy products, etc. - all of these create the same types of symptoms as IBS, but represent a very different cause and treatment.

Other Causes of IBS

It's widely believed that anxiety is the chief cause of IBS. Yet not everyone with anxiety gets IBS. It may have something to do with neurotransmitter production. Those with anxiety may be low on neurotransmitters like serotonin, and the gut has receptors that are also reactive to serotonin levels.

It's also believed that IBS may be related to the levels of "good bacteria" compared to "bad bacteria," and there may be some component of those living with anxiety that allows bad bacteria to flourish. Some even believe that IBS may be more common in those that have undergone antibiotics, possibly because anxiety prevents the good bacteria from regaining its strength after an antibiotic treatment.

It may also have something to do with muscle tension as it relates to anxiety and stress. During periods of intense stress, your body may be creating pressure on the muscles that cause your intestinal tract to move slower or faster than it would in someone without anxiety.

Anxiety and stress are certainly key factors, but it does appear that there is more involved.

How to Reduce the Effects of IBS

Irritable bowel syndrome can be an upsetting disorder. Regular trips to the bathroom may be embarrassing, and the physical effects of IBS - including abdominal pain and gas/bloating - can have an effect on anxiety as well, especially those with health anxiety/panic attacks.

Because IBS has no known cause, it also has no known cure, other than reducing your anxiety. In some people, IBS may simply disappear - especially after anxiety treatments. In others, it may be necessary to make lifestyle changes that help you manage your IBS so that the symptoms stop disrupting your life.

For those in a constant struggle with IBS, try the following strategies to reduce the way irritable bowel syndrome affects your life. These strategies may not cure IBS altogether, but they can make living with the condition far more bearable:

  • Avoid Certain Foods Even though IBS doesn't appear to be caused by specific foods (provided you have ruled out food intolerances) there do appear to be foods that increase the symptoms of IBS. Fried foods, alcohol, dairy products, caffeinated beverages, carbonated beverages, and foods with a high-fat content all appear to increase IBS symptoms, most likely because these foods tend to be very hard on your bowels.
  • Eat Certain Foods There are also foods that you can eat that may improve your IBS symptoms. Foods that are high in fiber, like vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruits, and cereals may all be beneficial because they are healthier for your colon and thus improve the flow of your digestive tract. Apples, peaches, cabbage, peas, broccoli, carrots, black beans and lima beans are all good choices. Make sure you're not boiling these too much or cooking them in a way that reduces their nutritional value.
  • Write in a Food Journal IBS may cause people to develop very mild sensitivities that increase their IBS symptoms. So keep a food journal as well, where you keep track of what you're eating and how bad your IBS is that day. You may find that even healthy foods may contribute to an increase in IBS symptoms if your body has become sensitive to them, and a food journal can help you identify these foods.
  • Eat Smaller Meals When you eat a very large meal, your body tends to experience a great deal of stress as it tries to break down the food and move it through your digestive tract. Smaller meals help it work more efficiently so that it's not slowing or speeding up your meals to a degree that makes it harder for food to be processed.
  • Never Skip Meals However, you should also never skip meals - and try to always eat at the same time each day. People think that skipping meals helps them lose weight, but all it does is throw off your hormone balance and slow down your metabolism. Skipping meals makes it more likely you'll gain weight when you eat and has a serious effect on your gastrointestinal system.
  • Try Natural Treatments There are a variety of natural solutions to IBS that may help alleviate your IBS symptoms. For example, peppermint oil, ginger, and chamomile have all been linked to reduced gastrointestinal discomfort. Always talk to your doctor first, however, as some natural supplements can interact with other conditions or medicines.
  • Peppermint Oil Believed to reduce sensations of bloating and gastrointestinal discomfort. May help food travel through your digestive tract.
  • Ginger Aids digestion, and is believed to minimize stomach cramps and nausea. Ginger can be had in many different forms for those that do not like the taste of ginger.
  • Chamomile Chamomile is often used to target gas and may have anti-inflammatory effects that calm the stomach and bowels.

Finally, the most important thing you can do to decrease your IBS symptoms is to prevent your anxiety. You can't expect to treat IBS if you still suffer from stress and anxiety on a regular basis.

IBS is a syndrome, not an illness. It's caused by stress and anxiety and made worse by stress and anxiety. Only by curing your anxiety can you expect to manage it.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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