Living With IBS: 6 Helpful Tips

By Dr. Said Nabhan

If you want to know what it’s like to live with irritable bowel syndrome, here is an example.

You’re just finishing up lunch with some co-workers. Each returns to his or her work station, but you, recognizing the onset of familiar abdominal cramps, duck into the bathroom. The need to go is sudden, and you almost don’t make it. This “IBS attack” takes place at least once a week.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a widespread condition, affecting 10% to 15% of people in the United States – nearly twice as many women as men – according to the American College of Gastroenterology. The most common symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and/or constipation. These effects, while not debilitating, can still upend a person’s routine and produce stress stemming from not knowing when an attack may occur.

However, that doesn’t mean you – or someone you know – must compromise on a lifestyle because of IBS. There are remedies, many of which can be practiced at home. To appreciate how they work, it helps to understand what’s happening inside when IBS strikes.

IBS Explained: A Misfire, Touchy Nerves, and Too Much Contraction

IBS is a gastrointestinal condition that targets the large intestine, or the lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Researchers believe it is caused by a group of disorders that include a miscommunication between the brain and gut when food is being digested, forcing it to move too fast or too slowly. This issue may be combined with GI nerves that are hypersensitive to pain, changes in levels of gut bacteria, and irregularities in how the muscles in the colon contract (often more frequently than the average person’s).

Many times, a flare up is associated with stress, anxiety, depression, or a previous intestinal infection.

For the person living with this combination of factors, the body’s reaction includes abdominal pain and a sudden change in bowel movements. The rule-of-thumb for diagnosing IBS is that the patient experiences these symptoms at least once a week for three months.

That translates to a lot of prolonged uncertainty, but fortunately IBS is not a gateway to more serious illnesses such as inflammatory bowel disease or colon cancer.

But are those with IBS doomed to a life of avoiding social gatherings and plotting out the nearest bathroom?

How to Better Stomach IBS – 6 Steps You Can Take at Home

While there is no cure for IBS, its symptoms can be managed. The approach, however, will vary slightly from person to person because each of our insides are unique to us. In general, treatment requires some changes in lifestyle and dietary practices.

Our approach includes these six suggestions:

  • Keep a detailed food journal. This will help to identify potential IBS instigators.
  • Eliminate or reduce trigger foods such as dairy, coffee, gluten, carbonated beverages, alcohol, and high-fat foods. Do eat natural fibers, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains.
  • Rule out FODMAP These are foods that contain certain carbohydrates (sugars) that some people have trouble digesting. For some, high FODMAP foods can trigger IBS symptoms.
  • Drink lots of water and other non-sugary fluids – at least eight cups a day.
  • Exercise regularly and practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation.
  • Eat meals at regular times (you may want to try smaller meals more often). Also, eat at a slower pace.

Therapies Offer Another Option for Treating IBS

Drug and mental health therapies also may relieve IBS symptoms. Prescribed medications, including probiotics, can manage bowel activity and pain. Those who prefer drug-free options can practice stress management, biofeedback, and pain-regulating exercises.

These efforts can make a big difference, but you have to be motivated and take the first step. Many people who live with IBS don’t seek treatment, and every one of them is likely being deprived of a fuller life.

Your gastroenterologist can help personalize a treatment plan just for you, and your unique gut, so both of you can live – and work – with more ease.

To learn more about the causes, symptoms, and treatments for IBS, click here. Or to meet our physicians and find one who is a good fit for you.