Strategies for improving Visceral Hypersensitivity and IBS

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a complex condition that can drastically affect a person’s quality of life. Symptoms like cramping, bloating, and unpredictable bowel habits can make daily life a misery. While the exact cause of IBS is still unknown,  research suggests there is a link between IBS and overactive nerves in the gut that cause miscommunication with the brain – this is referred to as visceral hypersensitivity. This article is going to explore what visceral hypersensitivity is and give you a range of strategies for improving visceral hypersensitivity and IBS.

What is visceral hypersensitivity?

Let’s start by defining the terms ‘visceral’ and ‘hypersensitivity, before looking at the connection between your gut and IBS.

‘Visceral’ is a term that describes the soft internal organs of our bodies, like our digestive tract and ‘hypersensitivity’ is when there is an abnormal or exaggerated response to a situation or stimulus.

Your gut is wrapped in millions of neurons (or nerves) that constantly send messages back to the brain via a communication superhighway called the vagus nerve (or gut-brain axis). Sometimes, the gut neurons become overactive and can start interpreting ‘normal’ digestive functions as a problem. The neurons send a flood of communication back to the brain—sometimes, the wrong messages are sent by the gut, or the right messages are misinterpreted by the brain.

This miscommunication between the brain and gut can lead to changes in pain perception, amplify your awareness of bodily sensations and trigger IBS symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhoea or constipation.

The Gut-Brain Highway: A Two-Way Street

Ever feel butterflies in your stomach before a big presentation? That’s a perfect example of the brain-gut connection. Stress can trigger IBS symptoms by sending signals to the gut, making it hyperactive and more sensitive to pain. But it’s not a one-way street. Irritation in the gut (this could be from normal digestion or from eating a trigger food) can also send messages to the brain, worsening stress and anxiety. This can create a symptom loop that can exacerbate IBS symptoms.

To break this symptom loop, we need to focus on reducing the body’s fight or flight response. We know that constant low-level stress from day-to-day living is enough to keep us constantly in a state of fight or flight. When we are stuck in this fight or flight mode, it increases our cortisol (a stress hormone) levels and reduces blood supply to the digestive tract which inhibits digestion and increases visceral sensitivity. When some people go on holiday, their fight or flight mode switches off, which might be why they can enjoy a wider range of foods without triggering their IBS symptoms.

So how do you teach your body to switch off the fight or flight mode?

Strategies for Improving Visceral Hypersensitivity and IBS

The good news is that there are a variety of simple lifestyle changes and strategies you can use to calm down the fight or flight response and decreases visceral hypersensitivity. These strategies focus on calming down the nervous system by reprogramming how the gut and brain communicate, reducing stress and anxiety, and reducing triggers that set off the gut nerves. Here are some strategies to try:

Gut-Focused Hypnotherapy: This mind-body therapy uses guided relaxation and suggestion to help regulate gut function and reduce pain perception. Studies have shown hypnotherapy to be effective in reducing IBS symptoms like bloating, pain, and diarrhoea. The Nerva App is a popular resource.

Mindfulness: Mindfulness practices like meditation, guided body scans, and breathing exercises can help manage stress, a major trigger for IBS flares. By calming the nervous system, mindfulness can improve communication between the brain and gut, leading to reduced gut sensitivity and improved symptoms. You don’t have to carve out a dedicated time in your day to practice mindfulness – there are guided sessions you can listen to as you do the laundry, wash the dishes, have a shower or get ready for bed. Mindfulness apps like Headspace or Calm are great resources and there are lots of free mindfulness resources on YouTube.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): CBT helps identify and change negative thought patterns that can worsen IBS symptoms. By learning to reframe stressful situations, you can reduce the gut’s reaction to stress.

Regular exercise: Exercise promotes healthy digestion and reduces stress hormones, leading to overall improvement in IBS symptoms. If you struggle with regular exercise, then aim for a gentle 10-15-minute walk each day or break it up to 5 minute blocks a few times per day.


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