Sleeping Your Way to Better IBS Control

One of the most frequently asked questions on IBS forums is about links between IBS symptom severity and sleep. IBS sufferers want to know if a connection exists and, if there is a connection, how to improve sleep quality so that IBS symptom control increases, too. So, here goes.

The answer to the first question is a definite YES! Re-establishing good sleep patterns involving sufficient hours of restful, high quality sleep can be helpful not only with reducing IBS symptom patterns. Sleep is an absolute bedrock, a near universal biological foundation, a fundamental core stabilizer of many aspects of healthy physical and mental functioning. That is why, when sleep rhythms are off, sooner or later many different bodily systems begin to short circuit and misfire, including the gut, leading to a worsening of IBS.



In the presence of the tremendous biological complexity that is needed for our brains and bodies to function well, a mechanism is needed to keep the whole system running smoothly. Sleep is the mechanism or built-in process that re-sets and tunes our systems each night. What happens while we sleep?

  • Sleep is when the damage done by the wear and tear of life’s daily grind is detected and repaired.
  • Sleep is when the brain is given a refreshing and cleansing bath, which washes away the toxic protein by-products built up by the brain’s daily metabolic activity.
  • Sleep is when that day’s experiences that are determined to be of potential life value are strengthened and consolidated, while memories that were beginning to form but which were judged to be of little future value are dismantled and discarded.
  • Sleep is when habits – patterns of automatic thinking, feeling, and functioning – are strengthened. Sleep strengthens various forms of learning.
  • Sleep is when the body’s many life-sustaining rhythms are fine-tuned – heart rhythms, nerve firing rates, muscle contraction patterns, and more – so that the following morning we can be raring to go.
  • AND, SLEEP is also when the digestive tract’s own rhythms get programmed so that it can fulfill the following bodily demands in a healthy way –
    • distribute nourishment to the body’s cells
    • protect the body by keeping “nasties” passing through the digestive tract from escaping into the interior of the body itself
    • regulate the release of key hormones produced in the gut that travel to the brain and to many organ systems throughout the body



Re-establishing restful sleep patterns is made easier when we remember three important points. 1) Sleep is a built-in, pre-wired biological function. We come into the world knowing how to obtain as much restful sleep as we need. 2) Sleep is also a behavior that is subject to learning. We can learn good sleep habits and bad ones, too. But, because sleep is subject to learning, bad habits that are learned can be unlearned, and replaced by healthy and restorative sleep habits. 3) Learning requires repeated practice. In short, becoming a better sleeper is a matter of learning a few key principles and practices, and then doing them regularly enough so that they become newly established and automatic healthy habits.

  1. Sleep cycles are linked to the daily cycles of light as the sun rises and sets each day. So, each evening, as the sun begins to set, turn down house lights. As often as possible, turn off electronic equipment that generates light frequencies that convince the brain it isn’t time to get sleepy. Listen to music. Talk with family or friends. Engage in slower, quieter activities. This will tell your brain to produce more melatonin and increase the urge to sleep.
  2. Give your digestive tract a break. Digestion is hard work. It takes lots of energy. Give your gut at least two, and preferably three hours to finish its work before you go to sleep. Going to bed with a full stomach will dramatically disturb your sleep cycle. A glass of tea, warm milk (if you can tolerate lactose), or even a small glass of water can be helpful because it hydrates, while also soothing and calming your digestive system, body, and mind.
  3. Limit the consumption of caffeinated beverages. Caffeine can take eight or more hours to be metabolized. This means that it can still be in your system when you consume caffeine through the afternoon hours. Moreover, caffeine is a muscle stimulant, which can increase the muscle contractions (peristaltic movements) of the gut, which can worsen IBS symptoms. If your energy wanes in the afternoon, stand up, stretch, take a 2-minute walk, or drink a cold glass of water or a non-caffeinated, low fructose-containing beverage.
  4. Limit the consumption of alcohol in the evenings. Alcohol has a disruptive effect on dreaming (REM sleep). Dream sleep is an essential part of our mental filtering system, helping us work through challenges, strengthen important memories and break down and release mental material that is no longer relevant or useful. In larger amounts, alcohol is also an irritant to our digestive tract, which is the last thing we need when seeking to reduce IBS symptoms.
  5. Develop a going to bed routine designed to quiet the mind and calm the body. This can include a leisurely walk after dinner, a soothing bath, a time for personal journaling, meditating, or praying. When young children are involved, set their bed times early enough that you are left with personal time to engage in important self-care. Some people find that listening to a sleep program (see link at the end of this guide) can also help train the brain to wind down and welcome sleep.
  6. Make your bed a place for two memorable activities: sleep and sex. Don’t do your work in bed. Limit late night reading. Our brain learns quickly to stay alert in anticipation of doing important work, and your bed can become an important cue or trigger to “wake up” if you make doing work in bed a habit. Sex, on the other hand, can be a positive cue for getting good sleep. Not only does sex offer many positive benefits to the body and to the sense of connection we feel toward our partner, which adds to feelings of comfort and security that help induce sleep. Sex itself, including orgasm, is a soporific, which means it helps to induce sleep!
  7. Be careful in using sleep medicines or relying on supplements. Most sleep medicines are NOT designed to be used every night. Over time, they can make it difficult to sleep without them, and often end up requiring higher doses to be able to sleep at all. Supplements, like melatonin, magnesium, GABA, selenium, passion flower, and L-theanine, can induce sleepiness, and can be helpful on occasion. Here, too, over-reliance on them can undermine the goal of re-establishing healthy sleep routines. Talk to your health professional about these products. It is best to think of them as “supplements,” meaning they should supplement what you do rather than become a substitute for your own sleep routine.
  8. Finally, keep in mind that sleep is the mirror image of your day. When you day is filled with difficult emotional challenges; when your stress level is super-charged; when the pace of your day is always pedal to the metal; suddenly turning that off and getting good sleep just isn’t going to happen. That lifestyle is often responsible for making IBS worse in the first place. So, take the time to do what you need to manage your days, so they are more aligned with your body’s needs, your core values, and your life’s purpose. Your body can then reward you with a good and restful night’s sleep.

BONUS: Guided Sleep Practice

Below you will find our FREE guided sleep exercise you can use to train your mind and body to drift into sleep more easily and comfortably.

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