The Gut-Brain Connection & IBS 

When it comes to getting relief from IBS food is often the first place many people start to look at. And on the surface, this makes a great deal of sense. But in order to achieve long term relief from IBS symptoms, you need to go deeper and understand what’s really creating the changes inside of your gastrointestinal tract and triggering gut issues.

In fact, whether you are experiencing constipation, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, gas, or bloating, the underlying issue is still the same. And this is the issue around how your gut and brain are currently communicating with one another.

You see IBS is known as a disorder of the gut-brain interaction (DGBI) and is the result of your brain and gut not ‘’talking’’ to each other as they should.

And it’s this miscommunication that is responsible for the changes you are experiencing in the sensation and movement inside of your gastrointestinal tract, and for the IBS symptoms you are currently living with.

What is your ''Gut-Brain Connection''?

You may already be familiar with the term ‘’the gut brain connection’’, or ‘’the gut brain axis’’, but not fully realise how this connection plays a role in IBS. These terms may also be completely new to you, so let me break this all down.

Your gut brain connection is the connection between your gut and brain and allows your digestive system and your nervous system to ‘’talk’’ to one another. They do this via a communication network which involves the vagus nerve (the large nerve running between your brain and your gut), and several neurotransmitters.

This communication path is a two-way super highway allowing your brain to talk to your gut, and your gut to talk to your brain. For example, the brain sends signals to the digestive system to help it function correctly, and the digestive system in turn sends signals back to the brain so that the brain can control things like appetite, mood, and sleep.

In an ideal world, this communication system works to maintain your body’s state of steady functioning known as homeostasis. But when it comes to IBS, this communication has become disrupted, resulting in incorrect messages being sent between the gut and brain. And it’s this faulty communication that is responsible for IBS symptoms.

This means that the nerves inside of your intestines may become too sensitive, the intestines or stomach may not move properly, or your brain's ability to control digestion may not be working correctly.

Now whilst science doesn’t know exactly what causes these ‘’faults’’ to develop, studies have shown that approximately 60% of IBS sufferers report the first onset of symptoms during times of stress, whether this is anxiety, depression, chronic disease, job stress, family concerns or others. More on the effect of stress on the gut to come.

What happens when a ''fault'' develops in the Gut-Brain Connection?

When your gut and brain are miscommunicating with one another, it affects the ability for your gut to function properly and results in stomach pain and irregular bowel habits. In fact, there are two main issues which develop:

  1. Visceral Hypersensitivity. The bowel can become overly sensitive to normal sensations such as gas or fullness anmisinterprets stimuli inside of your bowel as pain. This happens because the nerves inside of your gut have become hyper alert, signalling pain and discomfort when they might not need to. Your brain can also amplify these signals, leading to increased perceived levels of pain.
  2. Altered Bowel Motility. The motility (the movement of food through your bowel) can become irregular resulting in constipation, diarrhoea, or a mixture of the two. This irregular movement can also lead to an increase in pressure inside of your GI tract causing further pain. Motility issues and uncoordinated and uncontrolled movement inside of the bowel are also the reason behind painful gut spasms.

How does stress, anxiety impact IBS symptoms?

By now I hope it’s clear that your IBS symptoms are not caused by a physical or structural issue inside of your gut but are due to a miscommunication within your nervous system. In particular between your central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord) and your enteric nervous system (the nerves that run along your gastrointestinal tract).

This link between your gut and brain explains how stressful situations may cause digestive symptoms such as nausea and abdominal pain. Just think back to the last time you felt stressed or anxious, and the impact of feeling this way on your stomach. Did your stomach start making noises? Did you have to use the bathroom numerous times?

This is because when you feel stressed or anxious, your central nervous system triggers your fight-or-flight response (also known as your stress response), which in turn affects how your digestive system functions, and can either slow down or stop digestion altogether. It does this to reserve energy for warding off the perceived or real danger.

Now what’s key to understand here, is that anxious thoughts and feelings can also trigger these exaggerated gut responses, and is the reason why many people with IBS find themselves caught in a vicious stress-symptom cycle. In this cycle stress creates IBS symptoms, which then creates more stress, which leads to further digestive issues. And so the cycle repeats. So if you are constantly worrying about uncomfortable or embarrassing gut symptoms, then this will very likely continue to trigger further painful symptoms. For many people, worrying about their IBS symptoms and going out for dinner, planning a holiday or simply leaving the house ends up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of gut issues.

Now this is not to say that IBS is ‘’all in your head’’. But the fact is, that your gut and your brain are inextricably linked, and what affects one will affect the other.

This now brings us back to food, and how the impact of psychological stressors can affect how well your gut functions in response to the food you eat. So if you are feeling stressed, anxious or worried you are much more likely to experience IBS symptoms around meal times. This is also why once you ‘’fix’’ the miscommunication happening inside of your nervous system, many of the issues you had around food will disappear.

Is it possible to ''fix'' this miscommunication?

Yes. Knowing that your gut and brain ‘’talk’’ to each other helps to explain why mind-gut therapies such as gut directed hypnotherapy and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) are so effective at improving the communication between the brain in your head, and what is known as the brain in your gut.

They are so effective because they work in two specific ways:

  1. They address the factors maintaining your IBS symptoms, particularly the ways in which you think and feel about your gut issues, and the changes in behaviour that you have made to manage your IBS. All these things can aggravate your symptoms. 
  2. They work on the level of your nervous system by changing the nerve communications that run between your gut and your brain. This means that they can positively influence the speed at which food moves through your intestines, the hypersensitivity of the nerves which are currently reacting to pain and discomfort and help to normalise how your brain processes pain.

In fact it’s been almost 40 years since gut directed hypnotherapy was successfully first used in the treatment of IBS and improving the gut and brain connection. Since then, there have been more than 30 published IBS studies highlighting it’s many benefits in significantly improving symptoms and quality of life.

On average, clinical research studies have shown that this approach can reduce symptoms of IBS by 70-80%, and inside of my own clinic, client results frequently surpass this figure.

What is the best psychological treatment approach for IBS?

Both CBT and gut directed hypnotherapy have been show to be effective treatments for reducing the symptoms of IBS. Both approaches do not involve stressful and confusing diets, or taking medication and having to live with the side-effects. They are both safe and effective options for getting long-term relief from IBS.

The main difference between the two approaches is that CBT is designed to build healthy coping strategies and thought patterns, whereas gut directed hypnotherapy targets the nervous system e.g., oversensitive nerves in the gut, and the miscommunication between the gut and the brain. Psychoeducation is also a key component of working together, which involves dispelling myths about IBS, explaining the brain–gut axis, the physiological stress response, and the rationale for using mind-gut therapies. By taking the time to help you really understand what’s happening inside of you body, you understand why standard medical treatments have been ineffective at adequately treating your symptoms and why the approach I take is different.

Inside of The Mind Gut Reset, the unique approach I take with clients, I combine both CBT and gut directed hypnotherapy so that I can maximise the results my clients achieve.


The Calm & Happy Gut

Natural relief from IBS symptoms without restrictive diets or medications. Science backed gut directed hypnotherapy and CBT programs.

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