All About Stress and IBS

Resource by

Joanna Baker


3 Feb 2020

Reading Time

3 mins


Sleep & IBS

Prioritising sleep is an important part of you IBS toolbox. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to acknowledge that when we have slept well, it’s much easier to deal with life’s stressors and when you haven’t slept well, everything is a little more sensitive.

Sleep is arguably one of the most underrated parts of our daily lives. Its shown to help with athletic performance, weight management, immune function, mental health and yes, IBS symptoms. It’s just as important as nutrition and exercise to good health. Despite this it’s one of the first things to get downgraded when life gets busy. Ultimately sleep is when we “rest and digest”, and poor sleep results in less time to rest and digest, higher levels of stress hormones ultimately leading to worsening IBS


How does stress affect your gut?

Our gut is often referred to as the second brain, and with good reason. The gut and the brain are in constant communication via a 2-way super highway known as the gut-brain axis making our gut sensitive to emotions and stress. Our guts produce the majority of melatonin (a key regulator of the sleep wake cycle) and serotonin (the feelgood hormone) and are particularly sensitive to cortisol (the stress hormone). High levels of cortisol reduce blood and oxygen to the gut. We all know about having butterflies in your stomach when you feel nervous, well when you are stressed from lack of sleep or other factors this is exacerbated it can result in bloating, cramps and even diarrhoea or constipation.


What can cause stress?

Stress is a very normal part of life and that cortisol release can be a very useful motivator when it comes to exams, getting a promotion at work or pushing your limits in a race. But when it gets a bit out of control you find yourself constantly in that “fight or flight” mode which interferes with relationships, sleep and of course physical symptoms form gut upset.

Triggers for stress are different for everyone, and when it comes to IBS. Stress can exacerbate IBS symptoms and IBS can make you feel stressed or anxious. So, this can become a real “chicken or the egg” scenario.


How can sleep help to reduce stress/reduce gut flare ups?

When it comes to sleep and IBS, there is quite a bit of research. We know that:

  • People with IBS can experience worse symptoms when they haven’t slept well1
  • Sleep disorders are common in people with IBS, with up to 55% of IBS suffers reporting sleep disorders2
  • Relaxation techniques like Yoga can be as effective as a low FODMAP diet 3, gut directed hypnotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy4 significantly improve IBS symptoms
  • Melatonin supplements which regulate sleep may5 help with IBS symptoms


Self-care and sleep tips to help manage IBS symptoms and reduce stress:

The research above indicates that there is a link between sleep and IBS, which means prioritising your sleep and some self-care strategies is important and could help you reduce your stress too. The following tips can help you prioritise self-care and manage stress levels:

  • Good sleep hygiene
    • aiming for at least 7-8 hours sleep per night
    • avoiding technology before bed
    • avoiding exercise or food within 2-3 hours of bed
    • limiting caffeine intake and practising relaxation techniques prior to bed time.
  • Get organised by meal prepping and shopping for low FODMAP foods regularly
  • Practise relaxation techniques e.g. yoga, meditation, light exercise. These will calm all the nerves in your body, including the nerve endings in your gut.
  • Stay hydrated
  • Connecting with friends and loved ones





  1. Buchanan, D et al (2014) Sleep Measures Predict Next-Day Symptoms in Women with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. https://jcsm.aasm.org/doi/10.5664/jcsm.4038
  2. Wang, B et al (2018) Prevalence of sleep disorder in irritable bowel syndrome: A systematic review with meta-analysis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5985632/#ref6
  3.  Schumann, D et al (2017) Randomised clinical trial: yoga vs a low‐FODMAP diet in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/apt.14400
  4. Wilson, s et al (2006) Systematic review: the effectiveness of hypnotherapy in the management of irritable bowel syndrome. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2036.2006.03028.x
  5. Elsenbruch, S (2005) Melatonin: a novel treatment for IBS? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1774680/

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