IBS and Mental Health: 9 Things to Know

by Claire Gillespie Health Writer

If you live with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a chronic digestive condition, you’ll be familiar with the physical symptoms — typically bloating, cramping, abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, and/or constipation. However, you may not be familiar with the link between IBS and mental health. While stress, anxiety, and depression don’t cause IBS, they may make your symptoms worse. According to doctors (and science), taking care of your mental health is one way you can make life with IBS a little easier.

Illustration of a gut in pain.

Your gut is super sensitive

People with IBS have a more sensitive gastrointestinal tract, which can be irritated by stress, says Danica Barron, M.D., associate medical director at ParaDocs. The gut and the brain are thought to be connected via the brain/gut axis, which includes a link between the cognitive and emotional areas of the brain and gastrointestinal nerves. “Neuroimaging demonstrated notable structural and functional differences between IBS patients and volunteers without IBS, as well as differences in brain activity,” she says.

Stressed man in a library.

Stress and IBS are directly linked

Stress has been found to play a significant role in bowel activity, says gastroenterologist Rabia De Latour, M.D. “The phrases ‘upset stomach’ and ‘nervous diarrhea’ probably stemmed from this link,” explains Dr. De Latour. Stress can impact the sensitivity of your intestines and their function. IBS is a disease with strong links to the mind, meaning psychological stress through multiple pathways can cause flare-ups.

IBS written on a piece of paper.

The IBS/stress link is backed by science

Studies on animals have shown that after exposure to stressors, immune pathways mediated by the central nervous system impact the gut and can result in a flare-up of IBS. Other studies have shown that people with IBS are more likely to report changes in their stool pattern after a stressful event than people without bowel problems. The kinds of psychological stressors often reported by people with IBS include loss of a spouse or moving to a new job or a new city, says Saurabh Sethi, M.D.

Unhappy woman on a park bench.

Psychiatric diagnoses are common in IBS patients

Many studies have shown that anxiety and depression are more common in people with IBS than in people with other gastrointestinal conditions, with rates ranging from 54 percent to 94 percent in treatment-seeking patients. (While an estimated 20 percent of the U.S. population have IBS, only about 30 percent of them seek treatment, says Dr. Barron.) Generalized anxiety disorder and depression are the most common psychiatric diagnoses in people with IBS.

Hands fidgetting.

Anxiety can trigger IBS symptoms

While stress is typically a response to a specific incident, anxiety often has no identifiable root or cause. The normal function of the digestive tract is to regulate digestion and the movement of food without the need for a person to be aware of it, explains Dr. Sethi. It also shares many important connections with the brain. When you are anxious, the signals between the brain and the digestive tract may become scrambled or misinterpreted, contributing to IBS symptoms.

Depressed man looking out the window.

Depression may cause constipation

If you have depression, constipation may be more likely to be a symptom of your IBS than anxiety, says family physician C. Nicole Swiner, M.D. “A lack of motivation and energy, plus decreased endorphins and serotonin, might cause decreased appetite, bloating and constipation,” Dr. Swiner says. Studies have shown a clear link between low serotonin levels in the brain and constipation as a symptom of IBS.

Man with a headache and stomach ache.

It’s often a vicious circle

The relationship between IBS and stress isn’t always clear-cut. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell what came first: the mental health issue or the IBS symptoms. “Stress can worsen IBS, and IBS can worsen your response to stress, by making you feel more anxious or depressed,” says Dr. Barron. That’s why it’s crucial to treat your IBS symptoms and treat any underlying mental health issues.

Woman with earbuds meditating.

Controlling stress helps ease IBS symptoms

Stress management can help prevent or ease IBS symptoms. Dr. Sethi recommends relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or visualization, talking to a friend, reading, listening to music, or meditation. If symptoms become severe — that is, they cause problems in functioning at work or during normal activities — consider psychological treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback therapy, relaxation therapy, and hypnotherapy.

Woman talking to a therapist.

Seeking help for mental illness is good for your gut

It’s important for anyone who has anxiety or depression to take steps to treat the condition. For people with IBS, treating underlying mental health issues can bring about a marked improvement in their IBS symptoms. If relaxation techniques and talking therapies don’t work, you may want to consider antidepressants or antianxiety meds. Talk to your primary doctors and therapists about your treatment options.

Claire Gillespie
Meet Our Writer
Claire Gillespie

Claire Gillespie writes about mental health, psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis and IBS for HealthCentral. She is a passionate about mental health awareness, and also writes about health and wellness for other sites, including Vice, SELF, Zocdoc, Reader’s Digest, and Healthline. You can follow her on Twitter @southpawclaire.