While sleep disturbances aren’t an official part of the IBS diagnostic criteria, research has found that
- waking up during the night
- daytime sleepiness
- feeling less rested and getting less refreshing sleep
Though IBS can affect your ability to get a good night’s sleep, there’s a lot you can do to improve your rest — and perhaps even your IBS symptoms.
Read on to discover the connection between sleep and gut health, along with a few tips to have a more restful night.
A complex communication system called the gut-brain axis connects your brain and gastrointestinal tract, or gut. This connection means gut disturbances can disrupt the parts of your nervous system that control sleep. A lack of sleep, meanwhile, can worsen IBS symptoms.
Experts have several theories on how IBS and sleep disturbances influence each other. Many of these issues overlap.
It can be hard to relax enough to drift off when you feel like someone has a vice grip on your small intestine, as some people might describe their IBS symptoms.
A 2018 survey of Dutch university students linked IBS pain to:
- taking longer to fall asleep
- perceived sleep quality
- more nighttime awakenings
Constipation and diarrhea symptoms also affected these sleep variables. However, pain was by far the most influential factor. None of the IBS symptoms affected total sleep time.
On the other hand, poor sleep may also
Typically, when your intestinal muscles move during digestion, your body knows that movement, called peristalsis, is safe and normal.
But sleep-deprived nerves can “forget” that fact and perceive peristalsis as dangerous spasms. They then send pain signals to your brain to alert you, causing shoots of pain as food moves through your gut.
Your intestines don’t just hold stool. They also contain your microbiome, a complex ecosystem of microbes that help your body break down food for digestion.
Disruptions to this ecosystem, called dysbiosis, can interfere with your bowel functioning. Nearly
Chronic sleep issues can also disrupt your microbiome and contribute to IBS symptoms. Getting enough sleep, on the other hand, can restore balance to the community of bacteria in your gut.
People with IBS tend to have more inflammatory agents, such as tumor necrosis factor α (TNFα), in their gut. TNFα can
The reverse pattern is also possible. Sleep disturbances often
In many cases, the sleep disturbances found in IBS involve symptoms severe and persistent enough to qualify as clinical sleep disorders.
Researchers in a
According to the results, 37.6% of people with IBS also have a sleep disorder. If you have IBS, you are over twice as likely to have a sleep disorder than someone without the condition. Sleep disorders are seven times more frequent among children and adolescents with IBS than the general public.
The 2018 review didn’t cover specific diagnoses, though. But a smaller
- 3.1 times as likely to have symptoms of insomnia
- 4.6 times as likely to have symptoms of hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness)
- 5 times as likely to have symptoms of both insomnia and hypersomnia
Other conditions can also contribute to sleep issues, even if you also have IBS. As a matter of fact, this condition often occurs alongside other concerns that tend to affect sleep.
According to the 2021 survey mentioned above,
Pain can activate your sympathetic nervous system, which tells your body to stay alert and prepare to act. Your body may divert resources from the parts of your brain in charge of sleep, which makes your sleep
That 2021 survey also found that more than
Mood disorders, also called affective disorders, can affect how your brain moves through the phases of sleep, especially REM sleep. This is why sleep issues are among the main criteria for these mental health conditions.
In fact, over
People living with anxiety often have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their bodies. This hormone also helps you wake up in the morning.
But high nighttime levels of cortisol can make it hard to fall asleep, which helps explain why anxiety and insomnia often come hand in hand.
It’s possible to improve both your sleep and IBS symptoms at home with some lifestyle changes. You can try these strategies right away:
Move your body
Physical movement can help you blow off steam, which can leave you less restless at night. Exercise can also help reinforce your circadian rhythm.
You don’t have to run a marathon to wear yourself out, though. Gentle exercise like yoga or walking can improve your sleep.
A 2019 review suggests aerobic exercise may help improve IBS-related constipation, but many of the included studies had a low quality of evidence.
What’s more, exercise therapy may not work for everyone. If you experience bowel pain while working up a sweat, you may want to opt for gentler forms of exercise.
Cut back on caffeine before bed
Caffeine is a stimulant that can stay in your system for several hours. If you drink coffee or an energy drink within 6 hours of your bedtime, you may still feel wired when your head hits the pillow.
Caffeine can also rile up your intestines and may cause diarrhea, which can also keep you awake.
For reference, an 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee contains about 95 mg of caffeine on average.
Fill up on fiber
Adults who reported “very short” sleep, or fewer than 5 hours, ate an average of 13.2 grams (g) of fiber per day. Meanwhile, adults who reported a “normal” amount of sleep, or 7 to 8 hours, ate 16.6 g of fiber per day.
Fiber can also help improve constipation symptoms in IBS, since soluble fiber can help stool move more quickly and easily through your intestines.
Common sources of soluble fiber include:
- Beans: black beans, lima beans, kidney beans
- Vegetables: broccoli, carrots, Brussels sprouts
- Fruits: pears, apricots, apples
- Nuts and seeds: hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, flax seeds
- Grains: oats, barley
Consider melatonin supplements
Your body produces the hormone melatonin to signal when it’s time to sleep. Some people take melatonin supplements to treat insomnia.
- making sure stool moves at an even pace, rather than too fast or too slow
- reducing inflammation in your colon
- dampening pain signals from excitable nerves in the gut
While melatonin supplements are generally safe, they can interact with other drugs, so it’s always best to ask a healthcare professional before adding melatonin supplements to your diet.
If your IBS symptoms don’t improve with lifestyle changes, or if they begin to affect your overall quality of life, you may want to visit a gastroenterologist. Getting treatment for your IBS symptoms may improve sleep and gastrointestinal issues.
Treatment typically involves a combination of dietary changes and medication. The specifics of your treatment plan may vary based on the subtype of IBS you have:
Many people with IBS find the food they eat directly affects their symptoms. Any IBS treatment will most likely include a dietary component.
A survey of
- 77% recommended a low FODMAP diet
- 45% recommended a high fiber diet
- 45% recommended a reduced lactose diet
- 18% recommended a low fat diet
- 12% recommended a gluten-free diet
In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a registered dietitian to build a personalized nutrition plan.
The power of peppermint
Some evidence suggests peppermint supplements can also relieve IBS symptoms. Just keep in mind that supplements, or peppermint oil capsules in specific formulations, pack a lot more punch than a cup of peppermint tea.
While tea can certainly help soothe an upset stomach, you’ll generally want to opt for supplements over tea to help ease IBS symptoms. A doctor or other healthcare professional can offer more guidance on trying peppermint supplements.
While over-the-counter (OTC) medications can help with occasional constipation or diarrhea, persistent IBS symptoms may require stronger medications.
Your doctor may prescribe:
- antispasmodics, which relieve muscle spasms in your gut
- laxatives or stool softeners, which make it easier to pass stool
- antidiarrheal agents, which help slow down the contractions in your intestines, making stool firmer
It may surprise you to learn antidepressants can also make up part of IBS treatment.
Antidepressants can lower inflammation and stress, which contribute to IBS pain. They can also affect bowel function.
Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), an older class of antidepressants, can slow digestion and reduce diarrhea.
If you have constipation, your IBS care team might recommend the newer selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). They can speed up your digestion, improving constipation.
In addition, antidepressants can indirectly improve sleep issues that relate to underlying anxiety or depression, whether these concerns relate to IBS symptoms or another cause.
Gut health and sleep have a two-way relationship: Issues with one bodily function can cause problems with the other.
To sum up, IBS can disturb your sleep, and that disruption can worsen your IBS symptoms, creating a negative feedback loop.
Here’s the good news: The healing process also has a bidirectional effect. Improving your sleep can reduce IBS symptoms. Likewise, treating IBS can help you sleep better.
If IBS has interrupted your nightly rest, a good next step involves reaching out to a doctor or other healthcare professional. They can help you build a holistic treatment plan that addresses all your health needs.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.