Sleep and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Sleep difficulties are common in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), as well as other gastrointestinal disorders including gastroesophageal reflux disease. Lethargy and daytime fatigue, which are common side effects of sleep disturbances, seem to also be common.

People with chronic pain report sleep as their number one problem. Certainly, abdominal pain, and pain from any source, can cause difficulty sleeping as well as arousals from sleep and consequent sleep fragmentation [interruptions of the sleep pattern, either to a lighter stage or to wakefulness, that reduce the total amount of time spent in the deeper levels of sleep].

Learn More: Treating Pain in IBS

How to improve sleep

While there are a variety of medications that help improve sleep temporarily, most (with the exception of some of the antidepressant medications) are not useful on a chronic basis.

Keeping good sleep hygiene is critical for anyone with sleep problems. This includes:

  • having a period of time of relaxation before going to bed;
  • keeping a specific wake up time even if you did not sleep well during the night;
  • not staying in bed for more than 20 minutes without sleeping (get up and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy again);
  • turning the clock away so when you awake you cannot focus on the time;
  • using the bed only for sleep (or sexual activity) and not for reading, watching TV, or eating;
  • and avoiding food or drinks with caffeine for at least 4 hours before bedtime.

Daytime activities also affect sleep, so regular exercise and avoidance of napping can greatly improve nighttime sleep.

Unfortunately, it is safe to say that the average healthcare provider does not necessarily ask about sleep disturbance in patients with functional bowel disorders, and patients may not mention them to their treating healthcare provider.

Be sure to let your healthcare provider know if your IBS symptoms are disturbing your sleep. Treatment for sleep disturbance will likely improve your overall quality of life.


Adapted from IFFGD Publication #140 by Bruce D. Naliboff, Ph.D., Clinical Professor of Medical Psychology in the Dept. of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, UCLA School of Medicine; Co-director, UCLA Center for Integrative Medicine; and Chief of the Psychophysiology Research Laboratory, West Los Angeles VA GLA Health Care; and from IFFGD Publication #178by William C. Orr, Ph.D., Lynn Health Science Institute, Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of Oklahoma Health Science Center, Oklahoma City, OK.

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IFFGD is a nonprofit education and research organization. Our mission is to inform, assist, and support people affected by gastrointestinal disorders.

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