IBS diagnosis is so vague, that it really makes you go through thick and thin while trying to figure out what works just for you.
After having tried variety of things suggested by my doctor, I finally found the one strategy that really works to relieve my IBS symptoms.
And if you’re also tired of IBS ruining your plans by crippling you at home with a horrible pain in your stomach, I am very excited to share my best tips with you.
Having IBS can be very frustrating, since it comes with so many different guidelines of how to ease your symptoms, but no clear-cut solution.
I’ve done the most of it when it comes to figuring out my IBS:
I’ve gone through numerous medical examinations,
I’ve tried out different IBS-friendly diets,
I’ve kept notes of what I’ve done and eaten during the day,
I’ve tried breathing techniques,
I've done loads of other things, of which some were very time- and effort-demanding.
I couldn’t find a specific pattern as to what food caused my IBS to worsen. So keeping a food diary did not make a huge difference for me.
While my stomach felt a little calmer by following the FODMAP diet for a while, I didn’t really seem to notice a huge difference with that either.
Then, one day, I noticed that I hadn’t had any IBS symptoms in a while. I came to a revelation of how great it actually felt to not be in constant pain. I started to wonder how that happened.
And then I realized that it could be the fact that I was on holiday, doing the things I love doing the most - actively traveling and going on adventures. I was totally stress-free at that time.
You may have heard that IBS can be stress-related and mine certainly is.
Our brain is very closely connected to our guts. The actual scientific term for it is the “brain-gut axis” and it plays a really important role in IBS (1).
When we feel bad mentally, our bellies feel bad as well.
So, I noticed that when all stress was gone and I was feeling relaxed during the holidays, my digestion was great as well.
Not having to worry about tomorrow, or wonder whether I really completed that task yesterday, or think about my long to-do list every morning is a huge stress relief. And for me, it’s been the easiest to live in the moment when I’m traveling.
Just enjoying the days as they come and living in the moment is what really makes the largest difference for my IBS.
However, I also know that I can’t travel all the time and the reality is sometimes filled with stress and lots of tasks to tick off your to-do list. And that’s okay.
That is why I learned to be in the present moment regularly, which makes my body feel in a similar way as while traveling.
By regularly calming down your nervous system and being in the present moment, your stress levels will go down, which will improve your digestion and relieve stomach discomfort.
Below are three quick exercises I practice regularly to manage my IBS.
They also work great if you generally suffer from an upset stomach when you are stressed.
1. Go for a walk where you totally immerse yourself in the moment.
Going for a walk, where you only focus on what is happening around you and how your body feels as you take each step, is proven to relieve psychological distress and reduce stress (2).
As you walk, “turn on” all your sensations in your body.
Notice how the pressure of the ground is felt on the different parts of your feet as you take your steps.
Notice the quality of the air you are breathing. Notice how it flows into your nose and leaves your lungs with each outbreath.
Notice how the wind feels on your skin. Notice the temperature of the air on your skin.
Observe as many things as you can see around you and carefully listen to all the sounds that you hear.
Fully immerse yourself in the walk that you are taking and only focus on all the sensations that are happening around you.
By focusing only on what is currently happening and involving as many senses as possible, you will leave less chance for your mind to wander elsewhere and make you stressed.
These types of walks can give you a whole new perspective of your neighborhood and even help you see it through fresh eyes, a lot like traveling does.
2. Belly breathing.
If you’ve missed my earlier article about a box breathing exercise, go ahead and check it out here.
Another way to stimulate your vagus nerve, which is responsible for relaxing the nervous system, is by doing diaphragm or belly breathing (3).
Your diaphragm is right below your ribcage. It is the one that expands and contracts as you breathe.
Many of us have, however, become used to breathing into our chest and not use diaphragm as much anymore.
Chest breathing can make us breathe more shallowly, which our body interprets as stress. What is worse, our breathing naturally becomes more shallow when we are stressed.
So we enter a vicious cycle that stimulates each other, affecting not only our mental health, but also our digestion.
So, to practice belly breathing, you only need to sit/stand up straight and try to expand your belly as you breathe in and contract it as you breathe out.
It’s that simple.
Now try to take a few deep breaths, by counting to five on your inhale and five on your exhale.
Make sure that the air is going deep down towards your diaphragm and your belly is expanding outwards.
Repeat this exercise several times a day. It is really easy to do it anywhere and at anytime
3. Deep muscle relaxation
One of my favorite parts of yoga practice is shavasana, where you lay down flat on the floor at the end of the practice and let go of all the tension and control of your body.
The great thing about deep muscle relaxation is that you don’t even need to do yoga before doing it. :)
It’s great to practice deep muscle relaxation regularly, and it also feels amazing to do it when you feel stressed.
Just lay down flat on your back either on the floor, on your bed, on the couch, or even sit in a comfortable chair, and close your eyes.
Now tense all the muscles in your toes for a second and release them right afterwards.
Move over to your feet - tense them very tight and relax every muscle. Then move to your calves, your thighs, fingers, palms, arms, shoulders, belly, back, chest, neck, and then finish off with tensing all the muscles in your face, making you frown immensely.
And then fully relax every single muscle in your body.
If some part of your body still feels tight, simply think about how it feels right now in your mind and direct your focus to relaxing that part, without physically moving it.
Feel the ground underneath your body pushing it up, and your body pushing against the ground.
If you want an even deeper relaxation, I like to think of my body as if it’s melting into the ground.
Stay in this deeply relaxed state for as long as you want to.
If you are a beginner, I would suggest starting with 3 - 5 minutes just to get the feeling of it.
When you are ready, start wiggling your fingers and toes, then start making circles with your wrists and ankles, and finally stretch your body as if you had just woken up.
Open your eyes and sit down once you’re ready.
Oh, and as you might see, it’s easy to fall asleep while doing deep muscle relaxation, so setting an alarm before doing this exercise might actually be a good idea. :)
These three mindful exercises have truly been a game changer for me and my gut health during busy periods of my life.
Several studies on mindfulness-based stress reduction training (such as the exercise listed above) found to really improve the IBS symptoms in participants who find that diet changes and even medication doesn’t make a big difference (4).
I strongly recommend doing the three easy exercises a couple of times a week, or even every day, in order to relieve IBS symptoms related to stress.
Which one are you going to start with?
I am very interested to hear your opinion and tips on what you'd like to read about in this blog, so you are more than welcome to leave a comment here or contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura | MSc in Medical Science, Certified Mindfulness Life Coach
1. Fukudo, Shin. "Stress and visceral pain: focusing on irritable bowel syndrome." PAIN® 154 (2013): S63-S70.
2. Teut, M., et al. "Mindful walking in psychologically distressed individuals: A randomized controlled trial." Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2013 (2013)
3. Jerath, R., Crawford, M.W., Barnes, V.A. et al. Self-Regulation of Breathing as a Primary Treatment for Anxiety. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback40, 107–115 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-015-9279-8
4. Gaylord, Susan A., et al. "Mindfulness training reduces the severity of irritable bowel syndrome in women: results of a randomized controlled trial." The American journal of gastroenterology 106.9 (2011): 1678.