The IBS and Stress Connection (+ 4 Natural Remedies for IBS Symptoms)

If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), have you ever wondered if there’s a connection between your IBS and stress? Do you notice connections between periods of stress and more severe IBS symptoms?

Several months ago, I shared a surprising statistic with you: Approximately 80 percent of all Americans have suffered from adrenal fatigue at some point in their lives. [1] But you may not know that 68 percent of those suffering from adrenal insufficiency, also known as stage 3 adrenal fatigue (the most severe stage of this syndrome), have actually been misdiagnosed from their doctors with some other condition! Well, here’s another surprise in store for you: The most common misdiagnoses fell into two categories—psychiatric and gastrointestinal (GI). [2]

Now, according to most doctors, your GI system and your endocrine (hormone) system are completely separate. Think about it: If you were to go to your doctor and complain of digestive distress, you aren’t sent to an endocrinologist. You’d likely be sent to a gastroenterologist who would take a closer look at your GI system—even if other symptoms are present.

What would those symptoms be? Well, odds are pretty high that they would cover several symptoms of adrenal fatigue, such as insomnia, fogginess or concerns with your memory, fatigue, hormonal irregularities, and more. It’s highly unlikely that your GI specialist will ask about your brittle fingernails, hair loss, or dry skin—all signs of a nutritional deficiency stemming from the chronic stress you’re under. [3]

The bottom line here is that it’s pretty common knowledge that IBS is caused by stress. But instead of addressing your body’s stress response in order to relieve IBS, most people are given steroids and a prescription for an antidepressant before being referred to a psychologist. This simply isn’t the answer. The truth of the matter is that you can improve your IBS symptoms by addressing your stress response and supporting your adrenal gland health. But where do you start? Let’s dive into this topic and discuss how stress causes IBS and what you can do to find relief.


The IBS and Stress Connection

Think back to my bear analogy that I’ve shared with you before. When you’re running from a bear, you don’t have time to stop to use the restroom. And depending on how long you’ve been running from that bear, it may be days before you are able to have a bowel movement. When you finally have time to relieve yourself, your body is unsure about when the bear might come back. This results in either a quick release of loose stools (diarrhea) or further retention of stool (constipation).

As a result, you’re carrying around more toxins, which result in more symptoms such as gas and bloating, abdominal pain, hemorrhoids, changes in acid production, and much more. Sound hard to believe? Take a look at this study.

A 2012 study researched the connection between IBS and stress. Researchers divided 53 college students into two groups (those with and those without IBS). They then gave each group stressful tasks to complete. The researchers measured their stress and adrenal hormone levels before, during, and after the tasks. Their findings? Researchers discovered that adrenal hormone levels were significantly lower in the IBS group than in the control group! [4] But that’s not all.

Throughout the experiment, the IBS group experienced a higher cortisol-to-DHEA ratio than the control group, displaying cortisol dominance during stressful situations. As a result, the researchers concluded that an adrenal hormone imbalance may actually worsen abdominal symptoms in those with IBS.

The Stress and Digestion Cycle

They key to remember here is that your GI system is not independent of your other systems. As an example, let’s go back to the bear scenario again. If your adrenal glands are too busy secreting cortisol (the stress hormone) as you’re running from the bear, they will not support your digestion by helping your body remove waste. And if this stress is affecting your regular bowel function, it can cause inflammation, which then causes more stress on your system. This stress actually causes your cortisol to rise and fall—much like a roller coaster. And, over time, the stress actually decreases the amount of other hormones your adrenal glands produce, causing them to "burn out.”

So, if you’ve received a diagnosis of IBS, dig deeper. Don’t accept that this is a life-long diagnosis. By eliminating the cause of your troubles (in this case, learning how to support your body’s stress response), you can begin to support your body systems and actually relieve your symptoms!

IBS and stress - Dr. Pingel

4 Natural Remedies for IBS

By this point, it’s probably no surprise to learn that the top natural remedies for IBS are the same as those to treat adrenal fatigue. Remember, IBS and stress are so connected that you can’t treat one without addressing the other. By supporting your body’s stress response, you’re supporting many systems in your body, including your digestive system. And in doing so, you’ll be able to improve your IBS symptoms. Here are the key areas you should be focusing on.

1. Eat a whole-foods plant-based diet and drink lots of water.

When you’re addressing both IBS and stress, it’s imperative that you make sure you’re properly hydrated. Why? Well, adrenal fatigue tends to cause dehydration. In fact, studies have shown that mild dehydration is associated with elevated cortisol levels. [5] Drinking at least half your body weight in ounces will help to ensure you’re providing your body with enough hydration to support proper stress response.

You should also be eating a well-rounded, plant-based diet full of nutrients to support your adrenal gland health. Why? Well, studies have revealed that eating nutrient-rich diets not only supports your body’s ability to adapt to stress but also helps to minimize the effects of stress. [6]

To truly support your body’s stress response, these foods should make up at least 75 percent of your plate. These foods include plenty of vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, gluten-free grains, and lean proteins. For a more complete list, along with foods to avoid, click here.

2. Use herbs and supplements that support proper stress response.

In addition to eating a nutritious plant-based diet, you’ll need to support both your adrenal health and GI health by using the proper supplements and herbs. Each of the herbs and supplements below have been shown to help manage symptoms of both IBS and stress.

L-Theanine is calming and restorative amino acid that has been shown to have a significant impact on sleep, mood, and anxiety. [7]

Phosphatidylserine has been studied for its impact on the body’s stress response for many years. In fact, one study showed that people given 300 mg of phosphatidylserine felt feeling less stressed and experienced improved moods. [8]

Lavender is fantastic for treating symptoms of both IBS and stress because it’s calming and induces rest, reduces nervousness, reduces gastrointestinal bloating and infection, and so much more. [9, 10, 11, 12]

Passiflora is an herb that helps to reduce anxiety, decrease pain, improve nervousness, reduce palpitations due to anxiety, and more. [13, 14, 15]

Glycyrrhiza is an herb that benefits your GI system. In fact, research has shown that it has the ability to heal stress-induced ulcers. [16] It also supports adrenal health.

Other digestive aids are needed as well. Because stress has such an impact on inflammation and digestion, which is the ultimate reason why you notice the symptoms of IBS, you must also support the general function and maintenance of your gut. Some common treatments you’ll need to include are digestive enzymes (to help breakdown the food in your digestive system), anti-inflammatory herbs (such as turmeric, ginger, slippery elm, marshmallow, and more), and probiotics (to help balance and replenish your healthy gut bacteria).

Additional nutritional support should also be considered. Why? Well, both stress and IBS impact your nutrient availability and absorption. The top nutritional supplements you should consider include methylated B vitamins (especially B6, B12, B5, and methyl-folate), magnesium, selenium, zinc, trace minerals, vitamin D, and vitamin C.

3. Focus in completing stress-reducing exercises.

Calming exercises such as walking, tai chi, yoga, Pilates, and even dancing have been shown to help decrease stress and support your adrenal gland health.  In fact, a 2019 study showed that spending just 20 to 30 minutes outside at least three times per week can decrease your cortisol (the stress hormone) at a rate of over 21 percent per hour. [17] Plus, a 2014 review confirmed that moderate exercise actually helps to diminish some symptoms of irritable bowel disease. [18]

How amazing is it that you can fight both IBS and stress with a little movement and fresh air?

4. Practice stress-relieving techniques.

Due to the IBS and stress connection, you can actually help improve your IBS symptoms by practicing a few stress-relieving techniques such as meditating and journaling. Try making a list of what you’re most thankful for. You can even practice some self-love by listing all of your best features and attributes. In fact, numerous studies have shown that journaling is an effect tool for stress management. [19]


Key Takeaways


Adapted from the Total Health Turnaround Program—Coming Soon!