Swim champion Hayley Lewis recently told me she that when she was a teenager going through the stressful preparations for competing at Olympic level, she developed Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). IBS has plagued Hayley ever since, though she is retired from public life and is now happily running her own gift and homewares store in Brisbane. (It’s called Coming up Roses, in Balmoral).
Nowadays, health experts recognise that stress and IBS tend to go hand-in-hand. It makes sense when you consider how our gut is deeply connected to our emotions. Stress triggers the primitive flight-or-fight response, which re-directs our energy and blood supply away from non-essential tasks (like digestion) towards our limbs, so our caveman body can flee that woolly mammoth. Of course, there’s no woolly mammoth lurking in modern-day stress scenarios, yet when we’re under stress, our body reacts in the same way, interrupting digestion.
Scientists have begun looking at treating stress as a way of curbing IBS symptoms and they’re having surprising success. Researchers at Melbourne’s Monash University recently found that gut-directed hypnotherapy was just as effective in easing IBS symptoms as a low-FODMAP diet. What’s more, after a six-month follow-up, participants also showed improvements in anxiety and depression.
Our mood-controlling hormone serotonin is made in the gut – so it makes sense that if our digestion is impaired somehow, so are our feelings of wellbeing. So our brain-gut connection is a two-way highway. The more we understand about this connection, the more evident it becomes that looking after our diet plays a key role in our mental outlook, vitality, resilience and ability to cope with stress.
You can find out more about the stress-IBS connection and what you can do about in the September issue of Healthy Food Guide. Inside, Hayley Lewis also shares with us her own IBS journey.