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Ask a Dietitian: How Does IBS Impact Sleep?

When you're not getting enough quality sleep at night, you're likely to notice that bloating, abdominal discomfort and bowel functions become even worse. It's true—research has shown that sub-par sleep can affect the physical symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which cycles back to reduce the quality of sleep even further.

Here, we explain the cycle that keeps IBS sufferers trapped in a loop of never ending discomfort, and how to break out of it.

How does IBS affect sleep?

Studies have shown that the more severe IBS symptoms are commonly associated with increased sleep disturbances. This covers a difficulty falling asleep, shorter sleeping time, waking up more frequently and not feeling refreshed upon waking.

The reason for sleep disturbances in IBS sufferers is still unclear, but it is likely related to the ever crucial gut-brain axis, aka the link between our gut and brain. It's possible that symptoms like abdominal pain may activate this gut-brain axis, keeping the brain on high alert and therefore preventing the possibility of high-quality sleep.

How does sleep affect IBS?

It's common for people with IBS to experience worsened symptoms during times of stress, and we know that lack of sleep can make stress even worse. This is just one of the reasons you may experience worsened IBS symptoms when your sleep is suffering.

Another factor that makes IBS symptoms worse is increased sensitivity to pain in the internal organs of the body, and this increased sensitivity can be heightened by sleep disturbances. This can lead to a vicious cycle of poor sleep leading to increased sensitivity and increased sensitivity leading to poor sleep and on and on and on.

What can you do?

While it's still early days for scientific research into the relationship between sleep and IBS, the evidence suggests that the best place to start is to implement strategies to improve your sleep hygiene and hope that better sleep will make symptoms more manageable. Better sleep means falling asleep faster and more easily, and staying asleep for the right amount of time while you cycle through all the necessary phases of sleep.

How to improve sleep hygiene

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule: go to bed and wake up at a similar time every day (including weekends)
  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine: do whatever calms you and nothing that stimulates you, physically or mentally
  • Limit screen time at least one hour before bed: this includes your phone!
  • Avoid stimulants within six hours of bed time: this means coffee, caffeinated tea, cigarettes, and certain alcoholic drinks that have stimulant effect
  • Avoid alcohol: even if a few drinks help you get to sleep, it's unlikely that they'll help you stay asleep all night
  • Exercise regularly: make sure you spend part of your day moving around and get enough exercise in every week
  • Don't nap: where possible, limit or avoid napping during the day

Aside from stress management and sleep hygiene, IBS symptoms can also be managed by a low FODMAP diet, but it's important to follow the diet correctly with expert guidance. That's where our dietitian-backed program comes in. Our FODMAP Challenge means we're there to guide you through a short elimination phase, followed by a series of challenges that help figure out your triggers, and then a re-introduction phase to find the FODMAPs (and the amounts of them) that you can tolerate. Plus, there are plenty of recipes and meal plans to help throughout the process.

If this is something you struggle with, Health & Performance Collective is offering its new FODMAP Challenge, which could help you determine your IBS triggers, address your symptoms and improve your quality of life. Sign up with the code BEDTHREADS for 15% off.

Explore more content like this in our series, Ask a Dietitian

Health & Performance Collective is the brainchild of Sydney Dietitians Jessica Spendlove and Chloe McLeod. They use their 20 years of combined knowledge and skills as dietitians to work with motivated people to live and perform at their best.

Enjoyed this? We asked Jessica and Chloe to explain just why it's not ideal to eat dinner late at night.

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