Research tells us that the balance between good and harmful gut bacteria plays a role not only in gut functioning, but also in brain functioning. That is to say, disruptions in gut bacteria can disturb what’s called the brain-gut axis. Simply put, the “brain-gut axis” is the connection between brain functioning (nerves, sensations, etc.) and intestinal muscle tightening, pain sensations and so forth. Things that affect the brain, for instance depression or anxiety, also affect the gut and vice-versa: things that affect the gut also affect the brain. This is why my patients with anxiety also struggled with recurrent stomach problems.
The difference between IBS and some of the other problems discussed in this book is that IBS, is by conventional definition, not due to any underlying diagnosed medical problem, and is seen by conventional medicine primarily as a mind-body disease. (Ever notice how gas stations are chock-full of anti-diarrhea medicine and laxatives? “Houston? Houston?”)
For example, a doctor is likely to view IBS as a result of chronic anxiety rather than as a physiologically based disease that can be exacerbated by psychological symptoms. I’ve had many patients who were told that IBS was all in their heads, and they just needed to be less anxious.
IBS is not all in your head
However the data clearly show that IBS is not “all in your head.” If your doctor tells you it is, go find someone who is willing to work harder to get a better answer. Once you solve the problem of not being taken seriously—because, believe me, it’s not just in your head!—you can take comfort in knowing that you can find relief through paying attention to primarily physiological principles of good bowel functioning. Of course, we won’t ignore helping you learn how to reduce anxiety and resolve stressors.
Your decisions to change how you eat, your new sleep practices, exercise habits, your improved ways of managing stress and your healthier bowel habits will all affect your gut health and can create a wonderful healing environment for IBS.