Suffering from pain in your gut and bloating? You could I have IBS. Apart from stress management, there are natural solutions available. 

Assuming that your doctor has factored out any other causes of your discomfort, I can confirm that there is an established association between perceived stress and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)-related symptoms; however, gut issues can be caused and sustained by a multitude of factors, over and above stress. To address gut issues, I always take a top-to-bottom and inside-out-approach, where I consider the gastrointestinal tract from mouth to colon and any internal physiological or psychological drivers of gut issues:

  • Mouth: If food is not chewed properly, it may be challenging for further-down digestive processes to properly break down the large food particles into absorbable sizes. Also, if you’re gulping down food while sitting at your desk, you’re not allowing the body to be in ‘rest and digest’ mode (which is the opposite of ‘fight or flight’ mode). Research is emerging in the field of mindful eating and demonstrating the value of being ‘present’ while eating to allow for proper digestion.
  • Stomach: Insufficient stomach acid secretions directly cause incomplete digestion of proteins and indirectly inadequate digestion of other nutrients. When undigested proteins reach the intestines, they feed pathogenic (‘harmful’) bacteria, whereupon they produce gases. If you feel ‘heavy’ and bloated after eating high-protein foods, it is probable that your stomach acid output is inadequate.
  • Small and large intestine: Digestive enzymes secreted by the pancreas break down food particles to even smaller particles in the intestines to allow absorption into circulation. Insufficient secretion of digestive enzymes will therefore cause inadequate digestion and absorption of nutrients. Another essential consideration is the balance between pathogenic and beneficial bacteria in the intestines: If pathogenic bacteria dominate, they may feed on certain food particles and produce gas, resulting in bloating and flatulence. The primary beneficial bacteria that support a healthy and balanced microflora environment in the intestines are Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria.
  • There are several high-quality supplements available that support all the above-mentioned processes of digestion and absorption; however, instead of self-medicating, I encourage you to work alongside a natural health practitioner to find the most suitable supplements for you, based on what is driving your gastrointestinal discomfort.

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Further considerations:

  • Ensure adequate intake of water and fibre, which is required to bulk up stool, soften stool, feed beneficial bacteria and promote bowel movements. Sources: chia seeds, brown rice, milled flax seeds, whole rolled oats, organic vegetables and fruit.
  • Physical exercise (especially cardio exercises) may stimulate peristalsis (movement of waste material out of the body).
  • Food sensitivities are often a main driver of IBS-related symptoms and may cause significant damage to the gut lining, which contributes to further deterioration of gut health. If you suspect that you have a food sensitivity, a natural health practitioner will assist you in developing an elimination diet, where all foods and drinks that may elicit a response are eliminated from the diet for four weeks and then reintroduced one by one to detect which dietary elements should rather be avoided.
  • Avoid chewing gum: it sends signals to the body that food is on its way. If no food follows this signal, it may cause a negative feedback reaction and reduce your body’s ability to digest food.
  • Sugar-alcohol sweeteners (xylitol, mannitol and sorbitol) are often used as sugar alternatives; however, these sweeteners are indigestible and may feed pathogenic bacteria, causing gastrointestinal upset. Check food labels to make sure you avoid these sweeteners.

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Stress may reduce stomach acid secretions and cause uncoordinated contractions of the large intestine (‘spastic colon’). This may result in bloating, flatulence, constipation and an imbalance in gut microflora. In your case, stress may very well be a primary driver of the gut symptoms you currently experience and therefore I suggest that you work alongside a natural health practitioner who will develop a tailored nutrition, lifestyle and supplement programme to support stress management and gut health from all angles.

Editor's note: Read more on Natural solutions to IBS.

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