If you or a loved one are suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, you know the toll it can take on all aspects of life. The fear of “losing control” and constant paranoia around having bathroom access can lead to social withdrawal and even mental health struggles. Something as simple as going to the grocery store or visiting with a friend can cause severe anxiety and worsened symptoms.
While I am not here to tell you that there is anything easy about this chronic condition, I do hope to shed some light on how a healthy lifestyle can improve symptoms and allow patients to return to living the life they want, with some modifications.
The IBS and mindset connection
Before we jump in, possibly the most critical piece of taking control of IBS is understanding it and its connection to mental health. When it comes to IBS, mindset and mental clarity are critical. Our minds and guts are intimately connected. In fact, our guts are often referred to by scientists as “our second brains” because of how the brain and gut communicate back and forth through the enteric nervous system. When we struggle with mental health challenges like anxiety and depression, this can result in GI symptoms and vice versa. So, it’s no wonder that approximately 54% to 94% of people with IBS suffer from mental health challenges as well.
If you are feeling lost or hopeless on your IBS journey, know that you are not alone, and while it is difficult to manage IBS and similar GI conditions, it is very possible. My number one tip is to first do your research and understand the complexities of both our minds and guts.
Top 5 lifestyle tips
- Seek therapy – Once you understand the mind-gut connection, it’s clear why talking to a mental health professional would be beneficial when it comes to treating GI conditions. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a common treatment and is a multi-step process that walks patients through their health journey step by step. From learning about their condition, identifying areas where mindset or behavior shifts might be necessary, finding coping mechanisms and receiving one-on-one guidance, studies show that CBT has resulted in positive results for IBS patients.
- Eat a well-balanced diet – Our guts are complex systems. They are filled with both good and bad bacteria and should be nourished with whole, nutrient-dense foods. For patients with IBS, eating a well-balanced diet and knowing how different foods trigger symptoms is extremely important. The Low FODMAP diet is common for managing IBS symptoms because it cuts out nondigestible short-chain carbs that are osmotically active, meaning they force water into your digestive tract. While this is a beneficial option, I advise not depending on the diet long term since nutritious food sources are eliminated. A slow introduction of certain foods could be a way to identify the exact foods that trigger symptoms.
- Exercise – While it might sound a bit obvious, staying active is always critical for overall health. For GI conditions in particular, exercise is a great way to ease symptoms by reducing stress and helping with digestion. In a 2018 study on gastroenterology and motility, IBS symptoms were reduced through various forms and levels of exercise from walking to more intense workouts.
- Be in nature – The European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter, produced a study of 20,000 people which found that individuals that spend two hours a week in nature were “substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t.” Nature helps to destress us, put life in perspective, and literally ground us which can be extremely beneficial for GI patients.
- Find support – IBS can be so isolating. Especially because of the stigmas around mental health and GI issues in general. They’re not the easiest topics to bring up but finding friends, family members, or even others in similar situations to talk to and provide support can be extremely helpful. Don’t be afraid to speak up about your struggles and find a network of support.
IBS is a difficult illness to navigate, but establishing healthy habits will help IBS patients to make it through even the most difficult days. If you or a loved one were just recently diagnosed with IBS, do not let it define you or alter your dreams and goals. There are so many resources out there to help you adjust and continue to live life on your own terms. If you want my help, book an appointment via our private practice clinic, Dr. Lifestyle. We see patients worldwide.