Researchers believe stress may play a role in a person experiencing IBS due to the connection between the digestive system and the brain, also known as the gut-brain axis.

A person with their hands around their head resting against a wallShare on Pinterest
Alexey Kuzma/Stocksy

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) describes a group of symptoms that appear together, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation.

Research indicates that approximately 12% of people in the United States have IBS.

Doctors believe that emotional factors, such as stress, may play a role in a person developing IBS symptoms. This is largely due to the proposed gut and brain connection.

This article will explore whether stress causes or triggers IBS, the relationship between the gut and the brain, the symptoms of IBS, and other causes of IBS. We will also look at treatment options, how a person can manage stress levels, and when to speak with a doctor.

A person may experience physical or emotional stress when they encounter challenges and issues in life. Stress can impact many of the body’s systems, including the following:

  • respiratory
  • cardiovascular
  • gastrointestinal

Researchers believe that stress plays a major part in the triggering and worsening IBS symptoms.

According to the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, a person with higher levels of perceived stress is more likely to develop IBS.

What the research says

2019 research has demonstrated that stress may impact the functioning of the gut, including:

  • changing the composition of the gut microbiota
  • impairing the function of the intestinal barrier
  • impairing the speed, strength, and coordination of the digestive muscles
  • dysfunction of the immune and neuroendocrine systems

The combination of these effects can worsen IBS symptoms and may contribute to the symptoms of pain and bowel movement dysfunction.

2020 research demonstrates that stress can affect the microbiota of the gut. The gut microbiota is the collection of microorganisms, such as bacteria, that exist in the body’s gastrointestinal tract. These microorganisms provide benefits to the body, such as integrity to the gut and protection against foreign material.

The 2020 study also demonstrated that stress could affect the composition of the gut microbiota through stress hormones and inflammation. This may increase the risk of developing conditions such as IBS and depression.

A recent 2022 study on mice indicated that the mice experienced IBS-like symptoms when subjected to psychological stress without any inflammation or changes to the gut.

Researchers still need to explore this in humans to provide conclusive evidence that the effects are consistent with animal studies.

The gut-brain axis is the term doctors use to describe the connection between the central nervous system, which includes the brain, and the enteric nervous system, comprised of the nerve connections to the gut.

Experts believe that the enteric and central nervous systems can communicate with each other. Due to this link, the brain can influence the activities of the gut and vice versa.

2019 research shows that the brain interacts with the gut through various routes, including:

  • nerve connections via the autonomic and central nervous systems
  • via cytokines of the immune system
  • through hormones via the endocrine system
  • through the microbiota, intestinal barrier, and intestinal immune response of the gastrointestinal system

A 2017 study notes that there may be a disturbance in the gut-brain axis in IBS.

Read more about the microbiome.

A definitive cause of IBS remains unknown. A combination of different factors may result in IBS in a person. Possible causes of IBS include:

A doctor may recommend a variety of treatment options to treat the symptoms of IBS. A person may have to try different treatments to determine the most effective type to treat IBS. Some of these treatment options may include:

Dietary changes

A doctor may recommend that a person make changes to their diet to treat the symptoms of IBS. Dietary changes a doctor may recommend the following:


A doctor may prescribe certain medications to help improve the symptoms of IBS in a person.

To treat diarrhea in IBS, a doctor may prescribe one of the following medications:

To treat constipation in IBS, a doctor may prescribe:

To treat abdominal pain, a doctor may prescribe a person:


A doctor may recommend that person take probiotics to help their IBS symptoms.

Probiotics are live microorganisms, such as certain bacteria, which provide health benefits such as:

  • digesting food
  • producing vitamins
  • maintaining a healthy microbiota

Click here to learn more about the benefits of probiotics.

There are things that a person can do in their daily life to manage stress. Some of these techniques include:

  • deep breathing exercises, which may help reduce cortisol (the main stress hormone in the body) and blood pressure
  • meditating
  • yoga
  • monitoring negative thoughts a person may have
  • increasing exercise levels moderately

Mental health therapies

For stress, a person may want to consider certain mental health therapies that may help them manage their stress levels. Some of these therapies include:

Find out more about treating IBS.

While IBS is a long-term condition, a person should note any symptom changes and seek the advice of a medical professional if symptoms worsen or new symptoms arise.

A person should speak with a doctor if they experience:

  • worsening abdominal pain
  • unexplained weight loss
  • diarrhea during the night
  • bleeding in the rectum or blood in the stool

IBS is a group of symptoms that may cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, or constipation. Research shows that stress may trigger or worsen symptoms of IBS due to the brain-gut axis.

A person may manage the symptoms of IBS with medication, mental health therapies, probiotics, and stress management techniques.

A person should consult a doctor if they experience worsening symptoms or additional symptoms such as sudden weight loss or blood in the rectum or stool.