Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that affects the large intestine. Symptoms can include bloating, cramping, gas, abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea, making it an uncomfortable and unpleasant health issue.
Because IBS is chronic, it needs to be managed over the long term.
But unlike other disorders which affect the gut—for instance, Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis—IBS doesn’t trigger changes in intestinal tissue or increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer.
Most of the time, symptoms are mild to moderate. Only a small percentage of people with IBS experience severe symptoms.
Many people can successfully manage their symptoms through lifestyle or diet changes and by controlling stress. Others with more severe symptoms may require medication and other forms of therapy, such as counseling.
Symptoms of IBS
Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome typically vary from person to person. In addition, signs and symptoms of IBS look similar to those of a number of other diseases.
The most common symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal cramping
- Diarrhea or constipation—sometimes in alternating bouts
- Bowel movements that feel urgent, incomplete, or difficult to pass
- Mucus in the stool
In most cases, IBS is chronic. However, most people with IBS find that signs and symptoms don’t necessarily stay the same over the long term.
Certain triggers may cause symptoms to worsen, while at other times symptoms may improve or even seem to disappear altogether.
Research suggests that approximately 5 million Canadians may have IBS. But since not all IBS sufferers seek medical attention, it is difficult to measure the true incidence of IBS.
You should see your doctor if you notice changes in your bowel habits or if you experience symptoms that may indicate something more serious, including rectal bleeding, weight loss, or abdominal pain that occurs at night.
A doctor can help you to rule out other, more serious conditions, such as colorectal cancer.
What Causes IBS?
It’s difficult to pinpoint any one single cause of irritable bowel syndrome. Most of the time, many factors play a role. Plus, causes can vary across individuals; things that don’t bother one patient can end up triggering symptoms in another.
Some of the most common IBS triggers include:
- Stress. Stress doesn’t cause IBS, but it can exacerbate symptoms.
- Foods. A lot of people with IBS find that their symptoms are more severe when they eat certain things. Many different foods—including spices, beans, fruits, milk, alcohol, and chocolate, to name just a few—may be implicated.
- Other health conditions. Other illnesses, for instance, gastroenteritis, can sometimes trigger IBS.
- Hormones. Women are twice as likely to suffer from IBS as men. Some women find that symptoms are worse around or during their menstrual periods. As a result, some doctors believe that there is a link between hormones and IBS.
Can an Irritable Bowel Syndrome Diet Help?
Often, simple dietary changes can help to alleviate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Keep in mind that it may take your body a while to respond to dietary changes.
The goal is to find techniques to successfully manage IBS. Experimenting with your irritable bowel syndrome diet to find out what works and what doesn’t is usually worth it in the long-term.
You might want to try:
- Experimenting with fibre and fibre supplements. When you have IBS, fibre can be helpful or hurtful. For instance, it may help to improve constipation, but it can worsen symptoms such as abdominal cramping, bloating, and gas.The recommended approach is to increase your dietary fibre in small increments over several weeks to see how you respond. Foods that contain fibre include vegetables, legumes, fruits, and whole grains.If you decide to try a fibre supplement, you should also introduce it slowly, ensuring you drink enough water.
You can also visit a dietician or speak to your doctor about how to incorporate fibre into your diet.
- Avoiding your trigger foods. Certain foods may make your IBS symptoms worse. These foods may include caffeinated drinks or medication, chocolate, alcohol, dairy products, or certain sugar-free sweeteners.In cases where gas is a problem, foods such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, beans, and legumes might make symptoms worse. Fatty foods can also exacerbate IBS symptoms.
- Eat at the same time every day. Eating regular meals can help to minimize symptoms.
- Drink enough liquids. Water is best. You might need to avoid alcoholic, caffeinated, or carbonated drinks, which can affect your digestive system.
Other Lifestyle Changes and Home Remedies
There are other things you can do to control symptoms of IBS.
- Exercising on a regular basis. Getting enough physical activity can help to reduce stress and anxiety. Reducing stress can help with IBS.
- Herbs. Some sources suggest that peppermint may offer short-term relief of IBS symptoms, but study results are inconsistent. A herb blend known as STW 5 or Iberogast has also helped some IBS sufferers.You should always speak to your doctor before taking herbs and supplements.
- Probiotics. Some recent studies suggest that probiotic supplements may ease certain IBS symptoms, though the evidence is not conclusive.
- Stress-relief techniques. Meditation, yoga, and massage can all help to minimize the effects of stress on IBS sufferers.
The information in this article should not be taken as professional medical advice. If you are having issues or have health-related concerns, you should see your personal physician.