IBS or irritable bowel syndrome is experienced by up to 20% of the general population and it does affect more women than men. For those that experience IBS I don’t need to tell you how much it can impact your quality of life. And if you are like me it’s this impact on you life that may have you searching for answers. I wasn’t happy to accept the doctors advice of “Well you just need to eat more fibre and deal with it best you can.” So what is potentially causing your IBS symptoms?
I do want to make a little caveat here – this is not about doctor bashing. They have a very limited time with patients and their role is primarily to stop us dying. As much as we may feel like it at times IBS won’t kill us. It’s a syndrome not a disease and cannot be cured via a pill.
What is potentially causing your IBS symptoms?
Starting at the top.
Let’s start in our heads. Yep our heads. I know many of you will be thinking has she gone mad… what does my head have to do with my bloating and pain? I can assure you I haven’t gone mad.
Our brain detects messages from all of our senses. This includes our sense of smell and sight. Now I don’t know about you but when I start to think about a yummy meal or smell the delightful aromas of something cooking I start to salivate. This is just another way our brain gets our body ready for food. Enzymes in our saliva are activated ready to help begin to break down our food. It also tells our stomach to start the production of stomach acid another key in healthy and effective digestion.
Maybe it’s your nerves.
Our head, more specifically our brain and our cranial nerve 10 – the vagus nerve – has a lot to do with our guts. This vagus nerve is the bidirectional communication channel between our brain and our guts. Think about it like the old school two tins connected by a piece of string. Our brain is constantly sending our digestive system messages to change what is happening. These signals are mainly in response to stress. If our brain detects adrenaline in our body it will tell our gut to shut down. When the adrenaline subsides it fires it back up. I know my digestive complaints always seem to worsen when I’m under stress.
How fiery is your stomach?
The first and most important part of our digestion that shuts down if we are experiencing stress is the acid our stomach’s make. I’m not going to dive too deep into that now, I did another article on that which you can read here (Reflux, heartburn, indigestion: This is not the problem with acidity you think). This lack of acid though can be the cause of your reflux, your burping and the burning sensation you feel in your chest. Not enough acid causes the food to sit and ferment and putrefy in your stomach which bubbles back up into your oesophagus. This lack of acid can also be the cause of the bloating, lack of energy and both the constipation and/or diarrhoea that you are experiencing. The cascading effects of the lack of acid can be found in the article I mentioned earlier.
Getting your squeeze on.
The vagus nerve is also responsible for stimulating peristalsis. This is a contracting and relaxing of the stomach which helps push the food down. This can be turned off with short term stress. However long term chronic stress can also have an impact. Magnesium is an important nutrient in the relaxation of muscles. It is also used up a lot in times of stress. It is needed to turn off a lot of the switches that are turned on when we are stressed. When our magnesium stores are depleted we don’t have enough to allow the squeezing action of peristalsis to relax completely. This prevents a proper contraction during the next wave. It causes food to get backed up in our stomach, sitting there for too long adding to the fermentation and putrefaction mentioned above.
60-80% of people with IBS have SIBO (small intestinal bacteria overgrowth). This is where there is an overgrowth of bacteria and not necessarily bad bacteria, in the wrong place. The bacteria is in our small intestine rather than our large intestine. This bacteria begins to ferment our food in the small intestine rather than the large intestine where it causes excess gas and bloating. It also contributes in inflammation in the area possibly causing pain and other systemic conditions like food sensitivities, joint pain, mood disorders and skin issues. Addressing this condition could help address the symptoms that are causing your IBS.
Does happiness play a role?
Serotonin is commonly thought of as our happy hormone. It certainly does play a part in our happiness but more importantly here it regulates how fast or slow food moves through our digestive tract. It also alters our feelings of pain. Most people think this hormone is made in our brains. This is true but it is also made in our large intestines. In fact there are more receptors in our gut for serotonin than in our brains. Chronic stress depletes hormones like serotonin. This depletion decreases the movement of food through our digestive system, cue more fermentation and purification and also increases the pain we feel. Serotonin can be so depleted that you don’t have any to re-uptake. Many people find relief when they work to increasing their serotonin levels, increasing their pain threshold, improving the consistency of their bowel movements and reducing their anxiety and/or depressive moods.
A little side note here. Anti-depressants help you hold onto serotonin they don’t help you make serotonin. You will need to simultaneously work with your body to increase its ability to make this important hormone.
Don’t give up.
As frustrating as it can be getting to the bottom of what is causing your IBS symptoms, don’t give up. I know personally that if can feel very much like a “Who done it?” novel. It may take exploring a few different avenues of inquiring before you stumble upon that one thing (or if you are like me the handful of things) that can give you relief. The investigating and trial and error are worth it. If you need some additional help and support feel free to reach out.