What is the cause of irritable bowel syndrome?

If you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, you will know that it can be a frustrating diagnosis. The exact cause is unknown and may be due to constipation and a sluggish digestive system, issues with motility and never functioning, obstructions and even autoimmune disease.


However, your stool can indicate the current state of your health, so if you do suffer from digestive issues, there are lots you can learn about your gut from observing your bowel movements in closer detail.

For years bowel health has felt like an embarrassing subject to discuss. Still, with courageous and inspirational women like Deborah James of Bowel Babe, who has brought our awareness to bowel health, it is clear that we should all be talking about our poop a bit more.

This article will explain what clues your stool can give you about your health and the cause of irritable bowel syndrome, and why gut health is vital for overall health.

What do your bowel habits tell you about your health?

Your bowel habits provide a great insight into your health. You start to gauge a good understanding of what is going on inside by assessing the colour, shape, texture, and content of the stool itself.

And the reason that this is so important is that when you digest food, your body relies on many organs and systems to break down and absorb the nutrients from food properly. If these functions are not working correctly, you will see signs of this in your stool. An example of this will be if you have undigested food in your stool, as this may be a sign of low stomach acid.

And how does this relate to irritable bowel syndrome? Well, irritable bowel syndrome may be caused by imbalances in the gut, so working out where there might be issues in gut function is an excellent place to start to address the root of the problem and appease symptoms.

Why is gut health so vital for overall health?

Your gut is interlinked either directly or indirectly to every organ and system in your body. Even if you eat a very healthy nutrient-dense diet, the capabilities of your digestive system are at the core of whether you can absorb and utilise these nutrients. This is why many of my clients will come to me with mineral or nutrient deficiencies that show up on a standard blood test with their doctor, even when their diets do not lack nutrients.

In addition to this, the state of your gut will often impact the rest of your body, as it harbours a large part of the immune system, produces the happy hormone serotonin, and is connected to the brain through the body’s longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system, the vagus nerve. The vague nerve is critical for regulating many processes within the body, including sweating, heart rate, blood pressure, and of course, digestion.

A low vagal tone has been seen in people with irritable bowel syndrome, which may stimulate an inflammatory response. Vagal tone is the internal biological process that the vagus nerve conducts in the body. Increasing vagal tone can help to ignite the more calming, anti-inflammatory part of the nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, which may alleviate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

What to look for in your stool

Your stool comes in many shapes and sizes, and understanding what each type represents can provide you with a good indication of the current state of your gut. Here I will explain some of the many different forms your stool can take and what it may mean for your health:

Rocks and pebbles

If your stool looks like a cluster of pebbles, you are likely constipated, which may be a sign of dehydration or an issue in the functionality of the colon. In the colon, water is recruited to help clear the waste from your body, but when dehydrated, this process won’t function properly, making your stool hard and difficult to pass.

Pencil thin

If your stool is pencil-thin, this shouldn’t be a problem if it occasionally happens. Still, if you notice a sudden, permanent change in your stool, it would be worth investigating as it might be a sign of a blockage in the gastrointestinal tract.

Pale colour

Paler stool colour may be a sign of issues with other organs in the body such as the gallbladder, liver or pancreas, as these are all vital in filtering waste from the gut.

Runny poop

When your stool is runny, it may be a sign that your body is attempting to clear a pathogen from your body, but it could also indicate a food sensitivity or intolerance as well. If it happens often, keep a food and symptoms diary to see if you can find any patterns with what you eat and how you poop.

Dark colour

Dark stool may relate to something you have eaten, but it is worth investigating if it happens over a long period as it may be a sign of blood loss and may indicate a more severe condition such as Crohn’s disease.

You can use the Bristol Stool Scale to assess the health of your stool and determine whether you could improve your gut health.

Ways to improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome

You can improve gut function by how you eat, not just what you eat. Such as leaving a gap of at least two or three hours without eating between meals helps to facilitate the cleaning function of the small intestine, which is crucial for overall digestive health. In addition, making sure that you chew your food properly before swallowing with at least 30 chews per bite of food will aid digestive function further down the track. And remember, always eat in a rest and digest state like sitting at a table to eat your meals without distractions from your work, phone, or television is optimal.

Suppose you would like to explore your gut health in more detail. In that case, The Autoimmunity Nutritionist clinic offers a gut health test package which includes a functional stool test, test analysis and consultation. You can find details of this package on the website, or you can contact the clinic directly to find out more.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London W1G & Harrogate HG1
Written by V. J. Hamilton, Autoimmune Disease Expert | BSc (Immunology), DipION, mBANT
London W1G & Harrogate HG1

After 25 years of suffering from multiple autoimmune conditions that affected her energy, skin, hair and joints, VJ discovered after studying immunology and Functional Medicine and training as a Nutritionist Therapist that by uncovering the root cause of her issues, she was able to transform her health, and now lives free of symptoms.

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