Abstract Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common, debilitating gastrointestinal (GI) disorder, with a worldwide prevalence of between 10% and 20%. This functional gut disorder is characterized by episodic exacerbations of a cluster of symptoms including abdominal pain, bloating and altered bowel habit, including diarrhea and/or constipation. Risk factors for the development of IBS include a family history of the disorder, childhood trauma and prior gastrointestinal infection. It is generally accepted that brain–gut axis dysfunction is fundamental to the development of IBS; however the underlying pathophysiological mechanisms remain elusive. Additional considerations in comprehending the chronic relapsing pattern that typifies IBS symptoms are the effects of both psychosocial and infection-related stresses. Indeed, co-morbidity with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety is common in IBS. Accumulating evidence points to a role for a maladaptive stress response in the initiation, persistence and severity of IBS-associated symptom flare-ups. Moreover, mechanistically, the stress-induced secretion of corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) is known to mediate changes in GI function. Activation of the immune system also appears to be important in the generation of IBS symptoms and increasing evidence now implicates low-grade inflammation or immune activation in IBS pathophysiology. There is a growing body of research focused on understanding at a molecular, cellular and in vivo level, the relationship between the dysregulated stress response and immune system alterations (either individually or in combination) in the etiology of IBS and to the occurrence of symptoms.