Food vs. stress: what's causing your IBS?

Tummy troubles? This could help.

Imagine needing to wear pants that are a little too big at the start of the day so that by the end of the day, when you’re so bloated you appear six-months pregnant, you don’t need to undo your top button. Or feeling so stressed at the prospect of needing to go to the bathroom when you’re stuck in traffic that you know every highway exit with a lavatory.

This is the harsh reality for 11% of the Australian population, who are diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
With such a high portion of the population diagnosed, and further possible 10% reporting similar symptoms, management is imperative.

But what is IBS?

IBS is a chronic condition; meaning long-term management is required. Symptoms include stomach cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, wind, constipation and diarrhea. It is also common for there to be periods in your life where symptoms are worse, or are better.
If this sounds familiar, have you found out what is causing your tummy troubles? Symptoms can be triggered by a number of factors but the two biggest culprits are food and stress.

So what is causing your tummy troubles?

stress, IBS, work stress, caffeine
Image credit: iStock


Stress is one of the key contributors to the symptoms of IBS. Research indicates that people with anxiety or stress-related disorders are more likely to suffer from IBS. And with one in four Australian adults reporting moderate to severe stress levels, this could pose a problem. In fact, sometimes simply dealing with high levels of stress is enough to exacerbate symptoms, even if more serious mental health issues are absent.

Find out what else stress can cause: 5 things you didn’t know stress was doing to your body

When I work with clients to determine triggers for IBS, most people talk about their symptoms being much worse when they’re in a stressful situation. For some, worrying about symptoms can even bring them on.
But are all your stomach issues attributable to stress? For some people, stress is the key trigger that makes their symptoms worse. For others, it is a co-factor; it contributes but is not the sole cause.

IBS, food platter, food spread, antipasto platter, entertaining ideas, cheese board, antipasto board
Image credit: Pinterest


I remember learning about IBS at university and hearing that for many people suffering symptoms, they were often told that it was ‘all in their head’, or that they were making it up. And then FODMAPs were discovered, and it has truly changed people’s lives.
Three out of four people following a low FODMAP diet report a marked improvement in their symptoms.
What are FODMAPs you ask? FODMAPs stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. They are different types of carbohydrates that may not be digested or absorbed properly, which can then result in fermentation in the gut. Common high FODMAP foods include onion, garlic, chickpeas, wheat, milk, apples, pears and mushrooms (along with a whole lot of other things!). Management of IBS through elimination of high FODMAP foods, then reintroduction is the best way of determining triggers, and then managing symptoms, without unnecessarily restricting your diet.
I should also note that some other foods might contribute to IBS. Fatty food, spicy food and caffeine are also common triggers.

And how do we manage these triggers?

Both stress and food play a role, and depending on you as an individual, one or the other (or both) may bring on your symptoms.
Stress exacerbates symptoms, whilst determining food triggers of IBS, and reducing consumption of these foods is likely to help reduce discomfort.

Related article: 10 apps to help you sleep, remain calm and stress less 

Often I recommend relaxation techniques to clients suffering from IBS and encourage them to implement them into their everyday life. Whether it’s a yoga class, meditation, or a long walk. It’s about listening to your body and doing what makes you feel good.
The ability to tolerate certain foods may change depending on stress levels. If you are going into a stressful period such as exam time, reducing intake of your trigger foods can help prevent symptoms. When you are on holidays and fully relaxed, it is likely you will be able to tolerate more.
Words by accredited dietician, Chloe Mcleod

Chloe McLeod is an Accredited Practidietitian, should we eat gluten free, IBS dietitiancing Dietitian and Sports Dietitian. She is passionate about motivating Australians to
create positive relationships with food and educating them on making holistic health changes. She specialises in sports nutrition, nutrition for arthritis and autoimmune conditions, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and food intolerances. Chloe also works with people to improve their general wellbeing, weight management and eating disorders. She has produced a cookbook, Anti-Inflammatory Eating as well as a new program for IBS, The FODMAP Challenge

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