- Irritable bowel syndrome has been a trending health topic on TikTok.
- Mental health and gut health are inextricably linked, meaning stress likely plays a major role in rising IBS rates.
- Getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, eating well, and practicing yoga and meditation are a few ways to reduce stress and improve both mental and gut health.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) had quite a moment in the sun last year when TikTok users turned it into a “hot girl problem”—a health issue that even “hot” people have to deal with every day.
This common digestive disorder seems to be trending yet again. Does it have anything to do with the increased stress? Is the pandemic getting to us by wreaking havoc on our digestive systems?
Janice Johnston, MD, chief medical officer and co-founder of Redirect Health, said yes.
“Incidents of patients having IBS have been on the rise both in the U.S. and globally,” Johnston told Verywell. “Some IBS triggers such as stress, anxiety, certain eating habits, and proper access to health care have been exacerbated by lockdowns, and the pandemic and has likely caused a rise in IBS.”
A small study found that people who have IBS along with anxiety or depression reported worsening symptoms, including abdominal pain and diarrhea, as the COVID-19 pandemic persisted.
The Connection Between IBS and Stress
Research has long explored the connection between mental and gut health. One study looking at how stress contributes to the development of IBS noted, “IBS is a combination of irritable bowel and irritable brain.”
Factors such as medications, family history, food sensitivity, or simply being a woman likely contribute to a higher risk for IBS. But stress is believed to be one of the top risk factors for IBS, as it can change the way the digestive tract functions, Johnston explained.
“When your body is experiencing a flight-or-fight response, your brain tells your GI system to stop prioritizing digestion so you can focus on responding to the cause of the anxiety,” she said. “Too much stress can, in turn, routinely affect your digestion and alter the balance of good bacteria in your gut.”
IBS or not, most people have likely experienced uncomfortable feelings in the gut during life’s most stressful moments, showing just how closely connected the brain and gastrointestinal system truly are.
According to Chicago-based internal medicine physician Vivek Cherian, MD, these moments cause hormone levels to fluctuate, though they typically return to a normal level once the stressful situation has subsided. The real problem arises when people are under chronic stress, in which the stress hormones never recover to a steady state.
Is the Pandemic Making IBS Worse?
While the pandemic and its associated stresses have likely contributed to a rise in IBS rates, the impact hasn’t been consistent across the board.
Last year, a small study found that COVID lockdowns actually improved IBS symptoms for some of those who were already suffering from the disorder.
According to Johnston, this can be explained by the ability to have more control over one’s environment in lockdown.
“The effects of the pandemic can vary greatly, and some people already living with IBS, who were able to stay at home during lockdowns, found their symptoms lessen, noting they had more control over certain environmental factors that would normally trigger worse symptoms,” she said.
Regardless of whether you’re in the IBS club or not, Johnston and Cherian said there are number of steps you can take to improve your mental health and, by extension, your gut health.
This includes ensuring you’re getting adequate sleep (seven to eight hours nightly), staying hydrated, cutting back on caffeine and alcohol, practicing yoga or meditation, and eating a healthy diet that consists of vegetables, fish or lean meats, whole grains, and foods with vitamin B and C. You can also consider alternative methods such as acupuncture or massage.
Cherian added that a mental health professional may also be able to help with practicing cognitive-behavioral techniques to ease stress and anxiety.
“Some individuals find IBS support groups to be very helpful in managing stress and ultimately controlling symptoms of IBS,” Cherian said. “Bottom line: What works for one person may not work for another, but it’s best to try various strategies that ultimately help reduce anxiety and stress from your life.”
What This Means For You
If you find yourself experiencing symptoms of IBS for the first time, it may have something to do with the level of stress you experience in your day-to-day life. You can to reduce your stress and improve your gut health in a number of ways including sleeping more, eating well, meditating and, if necessary, seeking help from a professional.