Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) has been linked with abnormal serotonin functioning and immune activation. Tryptophan forms the substrate for serotonin biosynthesis, but it can alternatively be catabolized to kynurenine (Kyn) by the enzyme indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase (IDO), the main inducer of which is interferon-gamma. The primary aim of this study was to test the hypothesis that IBS is associated with increased tryptophan (Trp) catabolism along the Kyn pathway due to increased IFN-γ levels. Plasma Kyn, Trp and IFN-γ levels were measured in 41 female IBS subjects and 33 controls. Indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase activity was assessed using the Kyn to Trp ratio. Psychiatric co-morbidity was assessed using the Patient Health Questionnaire, and severity of IBS assessed using self-report ordinal scales. Irritable bowel syndrome subjects had increased Kyn concentrations compared with controls (P = 0.039) and there was a trend for Kyn:Trp to be increased in the IBS group (P = 0.09). There was a positive correlation between IBS severity and Kyn:Trp (r = 0.57, P < 0.001). Those with severe IBS symptoms had increased Kyn:Trp (P < 0.005) compared to those with less severe symptoms and controls, and were over twice as likely to have depression or anxiety compared to those with less severe IBS (RR = 2.2, 95% CI 1.2–3.9). No difference in IFN-γ levels was observed between groups; however, IFN-γ was positively correlated with Kyn:Trp in IBS (r = 0.58, P = 0.005) but not controls (r = 0.12, P = 0.5). Females with IBS have abnormal Trp catabolism. The Kyn:Trp is related to symptom severity, and those with severe IBS symptoms have increased shunting of Trp along the Kyn pathway which contributes to the abnormal serotonergic functioning in this syndrome.