Is it stress or is it IBS?

By Aleksandra Savic: final year Nutrition and Dietetic student
Reviewed by Rebecca Greco, Accredited Practising Dietitian, MND, B.HlthSci (1A)

With the end of the year fast approaching, people are getting into the Christmas spirit and becoming excited for warm weather and summer nights. But for students, the end of the year means one thing: exams.

While it would be amazing to feel completely on top of things and prepared earlier in the semester, unfortunately the reality is that exams are a whole lot of stress, anxiety and late-night cram sessions. Sometimes just the thought of walking into that exam room can bring on the nervous tingles in your stomach, but for those who may already experience IBS-like symptoms such as abdominal pain and discomfort, the stress associated with this time of year can exacerbate symptoms.

It’s not always easy to keep on top of your diet, exercise and sleep during busy exam periods, but my tips below may provide you with relief from otherwise distracting and daunting stomach issues- your body and mind will thank you for it!

Stress has many effects on the gut, both short term and long term. While everyone experiences stress, it can show in many different ways. The stress response in the brain results in a range of hormones that can play different roles in the gut leading to inflammation, increased sensitivity and increased movement.
These can lead to symptoms like
– Pain
– Indigestion
– Diarrhoea
– Nausea

So, what is IBS?

IBS is a chronic disorder of the interaction between the brain and the gut. People with IBS consistently experience the above symptoms and others, including constipation, wind and bloating. Symptoms can worsen for these individuals in times of stress (like exams!). In Australia, there may be up to 30% of people suffering with IBS.

Strategies to improve your gut symptoms during exams:


1) Try to eat regular meals
While skipping meals and late-night snacks could easily become the norm during exam study, irregular meal habits could affect movement in your large bowel and therefore contribute to symptoms. Try your best to stick to your regular eating pattern.

2) Be careful of coffee
Staying caffeinated is a common studying technique, but try to be mindful about how this is affecting your gut. Coffee can increase stomach acid secretion and stimulate bowel activity, sometimes even having a laxative effect. Sticking to under 3-4 coffees per day (which is the safe limit for most adults) could help alleviate symptoms.

3) Stay hydrated
The recommendation for fluid requirements for adults is about 1.8-2.5L of water per day. This looks like approximately 7-10 cups. Drinking plenty of water is suggested to improve stool frequency and may decrease the need for laxatives in IBS with constipation. You could set a goal of how many drink bottles to get through a day, put your drink bottle next to your laptop and take frequent sips during study breaks. A ‘by the hour’ drink bottle with time increments can help push you through the day as well.
Check out this Michelle Bridges Bottle from Woolies for $14 (

Exercising can be a great way to help reduce stress and has even been shown to help with symptom management in IBS, including gas clearance, reduced bloating and constipation relief. It can give you a great excuse to take a break from study too! Recommendations are to get 30 minutes of exercise a day at least 5 times a week.
Hot tip: this doesn’t necessarily have to be all at once! You can break this up to short bursts of 10- 15 minutes of activity as study intervals to meet your exercise requirements.

What works for you to reduce stress?
Tap into your own toolbox for stress relief. Some people enjoy meditation, listening to music or having a bath. It is important to make time for these self-care practices especially during stressful times. Getting enough rest and sleep will never go astray!

So, how do you know if it’s just stress or if it’s IBS?

While all of us may experience symptoms similar to IBS at times, a Dr will diagnose as IBS if several IBS symptoms are experienced on average for 1 day per week for at least 3 months. It is also important that you visit your doctor to exclude other conditions to confirm that you have IBS.

If you have tried some of the strategies above and you are just not getting enough symptom relief, it may be time to visit an Accredited Practicing dietitian. There are certain foods that contain ‘FODMAPs’, which are particular sugars that are poorly absorbed in the body and could therefore contribute to IBS symptoms. A low FODMAP diet can be quite tricky and is not designed to be a long-term solution, but rather a way to determine the foods that are causing symptoms. Foods are slowly re-introduced to the diet to determine their effects on the gut. Your Dietitian can guide you through this process. You can find one here:

Here are some links for more information:

Flinders health counselling and disability services:

The Dietitians Association of Australia:

A guide to irritable bowel syndrome

FODMAPs and IBS: What’s the deal?

Good luck with your exams!


Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines and the Australian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines. (2019). Retrieved 20 October 2019, from

Cozma-Petruţ, A., Loghin, F., Miere, D., & Dumitraşcu, D. (2017). Diet in irritable bowel syndrome: What to recommend, not what to forbid to patients!. World Journal Of Gastroenterology, 23(21), 3771. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v23.i21.3771

Konturek, P. (2011). Stress and the Gut: Pathophysiology, Clinical Consequences, Diagnostic Approach and Treatment Options. Journal Of Physiology And Pharmacology, 62(6), 591-599.

Stewart, R. Handbook of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics (5th ed.). Newstead: Australian Dietitian.

Qin, H. (2014). Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndrome. World Journal Of Gastroenterology, 20(39), 14126. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v20.i39.14126

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