6 min read

You've been told that your bloating and IBS are stress-related conditions. Yet you don't feel stressed! 

It makes no sense - does it? 

So now you don't just have a bloated, irritable bowel - you're confused too! 

It was an eye-opener to me to discover that stress didn't just come from work, financial or relationship issues - but that it could come from many other sources such as diet, environment, thoughts and even posture. Yes really!

So even though your life is fine with nothing particularly stressful going on, small everyday stresses could be responsible for stomach problems and a bloated, windy or irritable gut. The good news is that although you may have no control over the big stresses in life - you can usually do something to reduce the small stresses. But before you do - you need to be able to recognise what the small stressors are.

And that's what you'll learn in this article. I'll also explain why small stressors can have such a big impact on your health.

Why do small stresses affect us?

Let me tell you.

We're just animals. We might be taller, less hairy, wear clothes, live in houses and spend too much time on Facebook - but despite all that - we haven't changed much physiologically since we were living in the wild. We might look very different on the outside - but inside?

Not much has changed.

Our organs and our nervous system function pretty much the same as they did thousands of years ago.

So let's think about your nervous system for a moment - why is it causing your belly to bloat or tormenting you with diarrhoea or constipation?

Being an animal - part of your nervous system was designed to keep you safe from threat from other animals - and although (I presume) you're no longer living in the wild and under that sort of threat, your nervous system still behaves as if you are.

How does your nervous system monitor stress?

You're happily going about your day. Although you're not aware of it your nervous system is constantly monitoring what's going on around you - taking in information through your senses to determine whether you're safe or not.

It's as if you have an internal guard that's carefully detecting sounds, other people's behaviour and anything that's coming towards you or invading your personal space. It's also monitoring what's going on inside your body, the thoughts passing through your mind - even the way that you're holding yourself.

Caffeine, sugar and alcohol are obvious causes of dietary stress but anything in your diet that you're intolerant to can be also be a source of stress. Bacterial, viral or parasitic infections are another source.

From an environmental perspective many people are sensitive to phone signals and the electro-magnetic fields around their computers.

Then there's air pollution - and that includes those plug-ins and your colleague who's doused in perfume.

Noise pollution is a source of stress - from the low-level but constant hum of the fridge up to traffic nose, the noise of a busy office or restaurant, or the deafening sounds within a factory or on a construction site. So where you work can have a big impact on your stress levels - your bloating and digestive problems.

But it doesn't stop there.

Modern life brings many stressors. Do you have amalgam fillings (that's the grey ones)? Or are you not getting enough sleep? Are you dehydrated? Do you rush your food? Or do you hit the ground running each morning and don't stop till you slump in front of the TV an hour before bed?

Are there other stressors that could be causing bloating and IBS?

Yes there's quite a list:

  • caffeine and sugar
  • food intolerances
  • noise and light pollution
  • infections
  • lack of sleep and shift work
  • erratic eating or eating too quickly
  • electro-magnetic fields
  • being under-hydrated
  • high adrenaline sports
  • perfectionism
  • lack of exercise
  • mercury fillings
  • low gut flora, B vitamins or Magnesium
  • other people - stressed people or energy vampires
  • environmental toxins including perfumes
  • starting the day in a rush
  • junk food

If you're ticking a number of these boxes (or circling the dots!) then you're living in a state of low-grade but persistent stress. You might not feel stressed but your body is still behaving as if you're under threat.

Why does your body react to those things?

Your nervous system interprets all those small stressors as a threat to your well-being. When that happens your adrenal glands release the same stress hormones that would be released if you were under attack.

Obviously, the level of hormones released will be a lot less than if you were actually under attack - or you'd be in a permanent state of shock. But it's important to be aware that it's the same hormones that are circulating around your body.

It doesn't matter what the stress is. Your body only has ONE way to respond to it. The level of reaction may differ depending on the type of stress. But it's the same reaction.

When you're in a 'fight or flight' state your body is going to do what it needs to do to keep you alive. It gives priority to the functions that are necessary and any functions that are not needed in times of stress will be turned down - or even turned off.

Digestion is not important if you're fighting a lion. So when you're in a state of fight or flight your body won't bother digesting your food properly.

Isn't stress natural?

Of course! The stress response is completely natural and essential - without it the human race wouldn't have lasted very long. Or got going at all. 

The body is designed to cope with the stress of an actual physical threat - a scary lion eyeing you up as his next meal, nearly falling off a cliff edge whilst hunting for seabirds, lightening striking close to your cave ... that sort of thing.

After the threat has passed, the nervous system has a calming side that kicks-in to reduce the stress hormones and bring the body back to a healthy balanced state. This process takes hours to complete - so there needs to be a period of calm after each stressful event for that to happen.

Modern life doesn't involve much in the way of actual physical threats but we do have to deal with a whole range of minor 21st century stressors which can keep us in a constant state of low-grade stress.

And that's not natural.

The body was not designed to cope with constant low-grade stress.

Occasional stress doesn't do much harm. But our body has its limits - and stress is accumulative.

If your body has been dealing with persistent stress (even is it's only from minor stressors) for years and years - eventually - the stress can take its toll and the affect on the mind and body becomes obvious.

When it comes to stress - a thousand paper cuts can cause just as much damage as a blow from an axe.

Why does stress cause a reaction in the gut?

You have masses of nerve endings in your gut. In Chinese medicine the gut is referred to as the second brain. I like to think of it as the unconscious mind - the internal guard.

In your head you might be perfectly happy but if your unconscious mind is detecting danger - the nerve endings in your gut react, your belly could start to bloat and you could find yourself running to the loo or becoming constipated.

What happens if the adrenal glands are over-worked?

Over time if your adrenal glands are over-worked they can become overly sensitive. My diet of coffee, cigarettes, sugar, stressful jobs and difficult relationships had my adrenal glands going like the clappers. Even though all that stress has gone my adrenals are still pretty sensitive to stress.

I'm the kind of person who'll jump if a car back fires! If someone else is upset - I can feel their distress. It's as if I have my nerves on the outside of my body. It's likely that my adrenals will always be overly-sensitive but if I look after them and avoid as much stress as possible - I'm okay.

And if I do experience something stressful that is out-with my control (like buying an apartment when everything that could go wrong did go wrong) then I need to take some time afterwards to be particularly kind to myself.

Walking along a beach, having long baths, yoga, meditation, or just deciding not to bother making 'to do' lists for a while usually helps.

What happens if the adrenals are over-worked for a long time?

If your adrenal glands are over-worked for long enough they can become worn out. This is called adrenal fatigue. It's not recognised by doctors in the UK but I've met people who were diagnosed with adrenal fatigue in Australia and New Zealand.

As a result they were able to take the necessary steps to recover. If your adrenals have been over-worked to the point of exhaustion then you could feel just that - exhausted!

Thankfully most people don't get to that stage but it's worth being aware of the possibility and making changes to avoid it happening to you. Dr John Wilson's book Adrenal Fatigue - The 21st Century Stress Syndrome is the best book I've found on adrenal issues and is well worth a read.

How do you look after your adrenal glands?

Your adrenals will naturally respond to the unavoidable stresses in life. But you can help keep them healthy and less likely to over-react to things by reducing the small daily stressors as much as possible.

Most of my clients who make consistent dietary and lifestyle changes to reduce the amount of stress that their body is under experience a noticeable reduction in stress-related issues such as bloating and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Does stress build up?

I know some stress is good for us so I'm not suggesting that you never do anything that's challenging or exciting. And yes - some stress is unavoidable. But stress is not just a one-off thing.

It builds up!

So the way you react to stress today could be due to how much stress you've experienced up until that point in your life. Or even how much stress you've experienced over the course of the day, week or month. You would cope with a few small stresses but there's a tipping point.

Go beyond that and the stress can become physical.

Some people are more sensitive than others and not everyone will experience stress as a reaction in their digestive system. But if you do - you could feel a cramping in your belly, start bloating up, or suffer from constipation or diarrhoea. In other words - you could have a very irritable bowel.

What to do now?

To begin with it's helpful to think about how you start your day. Rushing out the house each morning with a sugary snack in one hand and a double espresso in the other is going to get your adrenals in a right tizz - and if you have a gut that's tightly wired to your adrenals then you're likely to end up with a bloated stomach and a dodgy tummy.

So give it some thought. If you're suffering from bloating, wind, constipation, diarrhoea or any other symptoms related to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (or any other stress-related condition) then it's worth considering just how much low-grade stress you might be under on a daily basis and take steps to reduce it as much as you possibly can.