Gut-brain interaction, IBS and stress

Did you know that irritable bowel syndrome is now being classified as a disorder of gut-brain interaction? This is a big deal, because this classification also suggests a way to reverse IBS – by fixing this disordered gut-brain interaction! 

But let’s back up a little – what is gut-brain interaction anyway? Well, simply put, our gut and our brain communicate with each other constantly: the gut is sending signals about what is going in the gut and its contents and the brain is talking to the gut about our environment, such as of safety or danger. 

In a disordered gut-brain communication, the gut is telling the brain there are problems when there aren’t necessarily any, and the brain might be telling the gut that we are in danger when we are not. All of this might even become a vicious cycle, in which the gut and the brain feed off of each other and make everything worse.

What causes the gut-brain connection to go haywire? Sometimes a gut infection or antibiotics may trigger persistent gut symptoms probably because of inflammation and gut microbiota changes (1,2), but more importantly, all other signs point to stress. Having extensively studied and researched the mechanisms of IBS (such as visceral hypersensitivity, gut immune function changes, increased gut permeability and gut microbiota dysbiosis), all of them can be caused by stress (3). And stress is what causes the brain to send distress signals to the gut. 

For example, most of us have experienced a time when we were really nervous about something, like giving a presentation or having a sports competition, that lead to abdominal pain and maybe diarrhea. I certainly can remember many instances! What happens, is that the brain prepares the body for a dangerous situation, which triggers a stress response in the body (an important survival mechanism!), to which the gut responds by becoming hypersensitive (pain) and removing its contents (diarrhea), or not moving its contents (constipation) so that the body could be better prepared to fight or flee (4). But usually when the event is over, the body returns to rest-and-digest mode and digestion goes back to normal. In IBS, a stress response has gotten stuck or triggers more easily leading to more persistent gut symptoms (3,5).

How then do we calm the disordered gut-brain interaction? The key is to switch the brain and the body to the rest-and-digest mode. The vagus nerve plays a big part in this and by stimulating this nerve we can restore proper communications between the gut and the brain.

And there are many ways to do this! My IBSwise course discusses most of them and provides opportunities to try them, too – I heartily recommend checking it out.

One thing you can do right away: take deep diaphragmatic (belly) breaths before each meal and any time you are feeling stressed out – this is a very simple way to calm and relax the body and boost digestion. Also try yoga and meditation practices, other breathing exercises and spending more time in nature etc. I also talk about all of these and many others on IBSwise

Thanks for reading! There is so much you can do for your gut health that is free and doesn’t require medication or supplements! Get in touch if you have any questions.

Love,

Anna-Kaisa

  1. Lupu VV, Ghiciuc CM, Stefanescu G, Mihai CM, Popp A, Sasaran MO, Bozomitu L, Starcea IM, Adam Raileanu A, Lupu A. Emerging role of the gut microbiome in post-infectious irritable bowel syndrome: A literature review. World J Gastroenterol. 2023 Jun 7;29(21):3241-3256. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v29.i21.3241. PMID: 37377581; PMCID: PMC10292139.
  2. Mamieva Z, Poluektova E, Svistushkin V, Sobolev V, Shifrin O, Guarner F, Ivashkin V. Antibiotics, gut microbiota, and irritable bowel syndrome: What are the relations? World J Gastroenterol. 2022 Mar 28;28(12):1204-1219. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v28.i12.1204. PMID: 35431513; PMCID: PMC8968486.
  3. Qin HY, Cheng CW, Tang XD, Bian ZX. Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndrome. World J Gastroenterol. 2014 Oct 21;20(39):14126-31. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v20.i39.14126. PMID: 25339801; PMCID: PMC4202343.
  4. Stress Effects. The American Institute of Stress. https://www.stress.org/stress-effects. Accessed 24/2/2024.
  5. Punkkinen et al. Suoli-aivoakseli vai aivo-suoliakseli – hoitokeinoja toiminnallisiin vatsavaivoihin. Review. Lääketieteellinen aikakauskirja Duodecim. 2023;139(22):1831-9

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