Is There An IBS Personality?

Is there an “IBS personality”? The answer’s not so simple. In my first post on IBS I talked about the importance of dietary factors. As promised, here’s my exploration of mind-body-soul and IBS. Please note: It’s gratifying to me that you’re finding the information and recipes here of value, but please acknowledge the source,, in your articles (or other materials).

There’s some evidence that people who have challenges managing their stress levels (who doesn’t?) may be more prone to IBS or IBD. There is also convincing evidence that those who struggle with anxiety disorders (and even  personality disorders) have a higher incidence of IBS than the general population. Still, at least 50 percent of people with IBS report that they do not suffer from anxiety or PDs.

So is my original question relevant? Is there an IBS personality? Let’s start at the beginning.

Digestive Disorder

The digestive tract is where many syndromes and diseases dramatically—and often painfully—express. Some of these include Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis (both of which fall under the umbrella term, “IBD”, or Inflammatory Bowel Disease), and Celiac Sprue (an autoimmune disorder that is rooted in a genetic intolerance to a protein in gluten called gliadin and other related proteins), ulcers, and GERD. But though we label them “digestive disorders” the truth is that like any illness, digestive disorders don’t really originate in the digestive tract where symptoms largely occur. According to ancient Jewish wisdom, physical and emotional problems actually originate in the soul.

Although at other times and in other places healers recognized a link between soul, mind, and body, it’s only recently that the West has taken a more holistic tack. Scientific studies have been done that show real evidence that the mind-body link exists. There’s an awareness now that we need to take the state of the mind and emotions into considerations when diagnosing and treating physical problems. Some doctors do just that. Others don’t.

Western physicians tend to stop short of saying that emotions cause physical illness, but almost everyone today agrees that there is at the very least a correlation. And it may be a chicken-egg kind of correlation since some diseases appear to cause emotional changes and some emotional issues appear to cause disease.

Judaism teaches that dis-ease has various spiritual causes. For example, disease can be expressed in the body and/or mind by damage done to the soul, either in this life or a previous life or as sometimes happens, a combination of both.

And yes, transmigration of souls is a normative Jewish belief. It is frequently found in classic  mystical (and non-mystical) commentaries on the Torah. Reincarnation offers a framework in which to understand genetic disorders as well as non-genetic illnesses that affect the very young, including infants. I personally have believed in reincarnation for as long as I have memory—and I was both relieved and intrigued when I found my belief was generally in sync what Torah has to say about it.

For example:  Our souls make this journey down into our body, going from a sublime world of utter spirituality, to lower and progressively coarser worlds, right down to our own material world. This world is the muddy physicality we lug, hurl, and twirl our bodies around in. Even though we live way down here, we retain our lofty spiritual essence called the soul, and that remains connected to the spiritual worlds above. Rebbe Nachman informs us that by focusing on the world of soul the moment we wake, and training ourselves to think about it throughout the day, we “lengthen our days” by giving our hours more import and purpose.

It is our bodies which provide the indispensable chassis and framework which houses our souls over the course of our lives. Only within bodies are our souls able to get to where they need to get to and complete their missions.

Despite the body’s power, it is the soul that determines the body’s shape, size, and other qualities, including the type of intellect that lights up the mind. The soul is in effect a spiritual blueprint for the body. Once the soul is in the body, it is largely up to this fused soulbody self called “me” to care for them both. Do we primarily treasure and care for the needs of the “lost princess”, our noble soul? Or, do we focus on the externals and devote our lives to our chassis? Actually, we can do both (but should emphasize the needs of the soul).

The Meeting Place

Somewhere in between, where spirit and substance meet, are the mind and thoughts, which lodge in and appear to be produced by our brain.  Also residing where spirit and substance meet, are our feelings and emotions, which lodge in and appear to be  produced by our heart. Therefore, two very intangible processes, thoughts and feelings, are born and dwell in two very corporeal entities, the brain and the heart.

But other organs besides the brain and heart can be described as seats or houses of emotions. The concept of organs being the seat of the emotions was popularized by both the Greeks and the Chinese, but is rooted very much in Jewish mysticism. For example, almost all traditional medicines posit that the liver is the seat of anger, which is an overwhelming feeling most people experience sometime or other.

In his important book, Anatomy of the Soul, Chaim Kramer writes that the part of the soul that actually “interfaces” with the body is called the Nefesh. The Nefesh resides in the blood. Therefore it is “fundamentally connected to the liver, an organ whose primary function involves the blood.

And…”The Talmud (Chullin 109b, Rashi s.v. hakaved), ‘The liver is full of blood.” The liver can either purify the blood, or release toxins that poison the blood. Rabbi Kramer goes on to say that “Blood, which is red, symbolizes heat, anger and bloodshed.

Though we don’t think about the liver very often, it has numerous, vital functions, many of which scientists don’t fully understand. Studies have yet to show how the liver might affect and be affected by the emotions. Even though Western medicine’s empirical evidence revealing the liver’s relationship to anger hasn’t yet been found, pretty much any psychotherapist will tell you: Anger is bad for the health! It really pays to learn how to manage your anger!

Our emotions not only are affected by and in turn, affect our body parts and functions, they are actually only able to exist in relationship to our physical selves.

So what does this have to do with digestive disorders like IBS?

Oh, How I Hate To Be Late

Imagine an evening rush-hour traffic jam in the Lincoln Tunnel (which connects mid-town Manhattan with New Jersey). In front of you is a young man in his twenties, blasting music and texting and bouncing around in his ancient, but very cool, Jeep. (Don’t try this at home).

Behind you is a guy from Jersey in a Mercedes SUV (sorry, guy, but you know who you are). The traffic is inching along. New Jersey guy has gotten to where he is in the queue by recklessly weaving in and out of traffic. He creeps up to your bumper and honks his horn, loudly. You can practically see the smoke pouring from his nostrils when you catch a glimpse of him in your rear-view mirror.

You pull over as far as you can and he passes you. Now Jersey guy is stuck behind noisy young man, who isn’t budging. Will things escalate? Will Jersey guy ram into the Jeep? Will he get out in a fit of road rage and punch the Jeepster? Will rubber-neckers gawk, ignoring the road in front of them and cause a ten-car pile up?

If you get stressed out reading this, step back and know: This traffic jam is a metaphor for what can go on in your digestive tract if you eat while you are angry, upset, rushed, tense, anxious, or nervous.

There is evidence that people who have even mild anxiety disorders are more prone to digestive upsets, including and especially IBS. The relationship isn’t clear to researchers whether or not it is causal, but common sense and experience dictate that eating while anxious, tense or nervous can inhibit proper digestion and that painful IBS attacks, in turn, can trigger anxiety and tension.

Fortunately, there are two easy things you can do to minimize low-level tension before, during, and after you eat.

What We Don’t Do

Perhaps the best advice (which you can read about in the 7 Rules of Mindful Eating) is to do two actions you probably don’t do as much as you should: BREATHE and CHEW.


Let’s start with chewing, something most of us rarely think about (unless we have a toothache).

Digestion begins before food even enters the mouth as the sight and smell of food primes our gastric juices. Then, we chew. Chewing grinds up our food into smaller pieces and our salivary glands, which end in ducts under our tongue and lower jaws, release enzyme-rich saliva which further breaks down the food. This prepares our food for its journey through the esophagus to our stomach. There, acid creates an environment in which other digestive enzymes are able to turn the food into chyme, a substance that passes to the small intestine where nutrients are absorbed and then onto the large intestine where waste is evacuated. (This is an extremely simplified description of the mechanics of digestion).

If we don’t chew, large chunks of food, swallowed after one or two bites, generally make their way into our stomach. But larger pieces of food need more time in the stomach to turn into chyme. During a lengthy stay in the stomach food can ferment and cause bloating and gas. If food pieces (including some types of fiber) aren’t dissolved and pass through to the intestine, they might get lodged in one of the twists and turns, causing pain and blockages.

(Ever read the warnings on the label on a bottle of fiber such as psyllium husks? It can actually cause digestive problems in many cases. New research indicates that for some, taking fiber may not be the boon to health we’ve been hearing about all these years. It depends on the type of fiber, the amounts of liquid in the diet, and other factors.)


The spiritual counterpart to chewing one’s food might be described as assessing, analyzing and reflecting on the patterns and event and experiences in one’s life, including one’s own actions and behaviors. Sometimes, we only realize something we’ve bit into is rotten after we’ve chewed for a moment or two. The act of eating can remind us to be more aware of what we consume through all the openings in the head; the eyes, the ears, the nostrils, and yes, the mouth. We need to use judgment when choosing the media we take in, the books we read and the people we listen to.

Anxiety is sometimes triggered by imbibing in experiences and events that cause dissonance between their inherent base “reality” and the refined reality our soul is truly crying out for.

You need to physically and mentally “chew” your food and your experiences in order to break them down and extract physical and spiritual “nutrition” from them. Also, you need to “chew” in order to make sure what you are ingesting, whether food or experience, is good for you.

Another point: I mentioned in the 7 Rules of Mindful Eating, the mouth not only receives, it gives. What we say and the words we use to say it is, according to Judaism, as important as what we eat. We misuse our mouths if the things that come out of it are hurtful, mocking, angry, obscene, slanderous or frivolous. There are numerous Jewish teachings on using our mouths wisely and correctly (and the importance of silence, too). Though this topic easily warrants  a lengthier discussion, we’ll move on to the second important action.


Think of breathing as a type of eating. When you breathe, you take in “nutrition” necessary to life such as nitrogen, oxygen and the other components of air. Generally we aren’t aware of our breathing, though some athletes, singers, musicians, and actors are often trained to be both aware of and take control of their breath.

The various Eastern martial arts, Qi Gong, and Yoga (which are controversial disciplines in terms of Torah beliefs) often emphasize breath awareness and breath control. There are also various plain-vanilla religiously-unaffiliated types of breathwork programs.

When you breathe deeply, slowly and with intent, you feed your cells with oxygen. Breathing properly produces calming energy and can improve your clarity of thought, relieve anxiety, improve your digestion and even heal your heart. Last year in our Therapy Soup blog, we interviewed Dr. John Kennedy about his B.R.E.A.T.H.E. technique. Dr. Kennedy is as “Western” as they come, he’s leading cardiologist on the stress-heart disease connection. He’s the former director of Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory and director of Inpatient Cardiology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, San Rafael, CA and the current medical director of Preventive Cardiology and Wellness, Marina Del Rey Hospital, Marina Del Rey, California, and member of the Board of the American Heart Association.

Dr. Kennedy describes the very real physical impact the emotions ( anxiety, grief, and anger) have on the heart. His book, The 15 Minute Heart Cure, offers insight into how learning how to de-stress can literally save your life.

A Bit About TCM

Traditional Chinese Medicine, organs interact with each other in complex and multi-directional networks. In fact, the Chinese “organs” are more about the functions and processes than the piece of muscle inside. The Chinese heart is said to house memory and consciousness. The Chinese heart also stores the “mind” and governs joy. A healthy heart leads to optimism, tenderness, enthusiasm, alertness, and awareness. Conversely, if there is a heart problem, the heart stores and emits anxiety and excitability, selfishness, poor boundaries, and giddiness. The heart “opens” into the tongue—which is why a Chinese doctor looks at the health of the tongue, though there is also the connection to speech and eating.

The Chinese liver facilitates the free-flow of the personal power and emotions. It stores blood and if in good order, promotes confidence and decisiveness. If out of order, the liver is the source of anger, tyrannical, antagonistic, deviousness and even pretentiousness. The liver “opens’ into the eyes (as anyone who has ever witnessed someone’s eyes flash in anger can confirm).

Although it is difficult to talk about only two “organs” since the entire galaxy of our beings is utterly dependent on a holistic viewpoint, suffice it to say that both the health of the liver and the heart affect the digestion. The Chinese “spleen and stomach” is the organ network that is most obviously associated with the digestion, yet reducing anxiety (heart) and dissolving anger (liver) will usually lead to improvements in digestion.

Also, according to TCM, addressing disorders of the organ networks and other bodily functions can help the emotions and even the personality traits. Of course, Judaism teaches us that part of our personal mission is to improve and refine the self by working on these traits, which when combined, compose a significant portion of our personality. Fortunately for most of us, our personalities are not fixed—with attention, they can absolutely change. More soon…

Photo: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble Heritage Team.

5 responses to “Is There An IBS Personality?

  1. Pingback: Food Photos « healthyjewishcooking·

  2. Pingback: Does Gluten Cause Mental Illness? | Therapy Soup·

  3. Pingback: Does gluten cause mental illness? | News in Mind·

  4. Pingback: Gluten And Your Skin, Digestion, And Moods | healthyjewishcooking·

  5. pretty much correct ! gave me an insight on why my pain has increased souch today and possibly the way to overcome it ! thank you so much !

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