Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a pretty common problem which can develop at any age, however people generally experience their first symptoms between the ages of 15 and 40.
Women are actually more likely to get IBS than men, and to have more severe symptoms.
Although the symptoms can often be quite severe, thankfully a healthy diet and simple lifestyle changes can make a huge difference to help minimize the pain.
So, what are the main symptoms of IBS?
- Pain in the abdomen – ranging from dull ache or cramps to stabbing pains
- Changes in bowel habits – alternating between constipation, diarrhoea, and mucus
- A sense of urgency to visit the toilet
- Incomplete emptying of the bowels
- Increased gurgling sounds in the abdomen
- Bloated abdomen
- Excess wind
- Feeling sick
What are the causes of IBS?
Unfortunately, we don’t know the exact cause of IBS, but it’s more than likely to be a combination of different factors. These include stronger contractions of the muscular walls of the bowel, increased sensitivity to the amount of gas in the bowel, and simply your genetic make-up.
It’s thought there may also be a psychological factor involved as well, such as increased stress levels.
How can you improve the symptoms of IBS?
In truth, there is no one-size-fits-all diet which will bring relief to all IBS sufferers.
However, there are some fairly simple lifestyle and dietary changes which may help relieve some of your symptoms:
#1 Eat at regular intervals
If you have an erratic eating patterns you should find your symptoms improve when you start to eat more regularly.
Try to eat small meals spaced evenly throughout the day – this is much better than skipping meals, and may help to relieve your IBS symptoms. Here is a simple eating plan you could rework to fit your own schedule:
- 8am breakfast
- 10.30am light snack
- 1pm light lunch
- 3.30pm light snack
- 6pm dinner
- 8.30pm light snack or hot drink (if needed)
#2 Keep a food diary
Most people with IBS become pretty tuned in to what causes their symptoms.
But, to help you out in the beginning it’s a good idea to keep a food and symptoms diary, as this will give you a better understanding of any foods, drinks or other activities which trigger your symptoms.
#3 Avoid rich foods
Many people with IBS find that rich, greasy, or spicy meals make their symptoms worse. Try to reduce these types of foods in your diet if you’ve noticed they affect you in this way.
#4 Drink lots of fluids
You should be drinking at least eight to ten glasses of fluid per day, such as water, herb or fruit teas, and dilute fruit juices.
Caffeine is thought to be a bowel stimulant, so if you drink regular tea, coffee, or cola try to reduce your intake, or go for decaffeinated instead.
Fizzy drinks in general should also be avoided because of their potential to cause wind and bloating.
#5 Experiment with fibre
Although fibre can help reduce constipation, it can also make gas and cramping worse.
There are two types of fibre – soluble fibre found in oats, beans, peas, lentils, fruits and vegetables; and insoluble fibre found in wholemeal/wholegrain bread, breakfast cereals, crackers, pasta, and also brown rice, wheat and bran.
Which foods are high in fibre?
- Carbs: wholemeal/wholegrain – bread, breakfast cereals (such as All Bran), pasta, crackers, brown rice, also muesli and oats.
- Fruits and vegetables: jacket potatoes, raw vegetables, salad vegetables, and vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, onions, also fruit skins, seeds, pith, and dried fruits.
- Pulses: peas, beans and lentils.
Which foods are lower in fibre?
- Carbs: refined/white – rice, pasta, bread, cereals (such as Cornflakes and Rice Crispies), noodles, crackers, biscuits, and cakes.
- Fruits and vegetables: mashed potatoes, vegetables such as turnip, carrots and beetroot, tinned tomatoes, peeled stewed fruit and tinned fruit.
If you suffer from constipation, particularly if you are not experiencing wind or bloating a diet including plenty of soluble and insoluble fibre may be helpful.
For some people however, eating too much fibre can make their symptoms worse. So, if you suffer from diarrhoea, try to reduce the fibre content of your diet (to 2 servings per day) for a two to four week period.
If you notice no improvement after this time try gradually reintroducing your normal level of fibre again.
However, if your symptoms seem to settle with a lower fibre diet, you should begin re-introducing some higher fibre foods slowly, making a record of any symptoms which return.
Doing this will help you to identify your fibre tolerance level.
Bloating or wind
If bloating or wind is a problem for you, try cutting some of the following gas-forming foods from your diet and note if you experience any change. Here are some of the common culprits:
- Brussels sprouts
- Carbonated drinks – especially beer and sodas
- Chewing gum – causes more air to be swallow than normal
- Hard candy – causes more air to be swallow than normal
You should try to eat your meals slowly, because taking your time will decrease the amount of air swallowed, and also avoid drinking through a straw, smoking, and chewing gum, since these practises encourage inhaling and swallowing air.
#6 Manage your stress levels
Many people find that stress triggers their IBS symptoms. Try stress management or relaxation techniques to help overcome this.
#7 Make time for exercise
Take some regular exercise as this will help to encourage regular bowel movements, and can be very effective in reducing stress levels.
#8 Try probiotics
There’s some evidence to suggest that taking a probiotic yoghurt may help to cultivate a healthy level of “good” bacteria within the gut.
Probiotics containing lactobacillus strains seem to be the most effective, and a daily dose of 5-10 million organisms seems to be adequate.
This is definitely something worth trying, however do bear in mind that some people find these products effective, while other people don’t notice any change.
#9 Avoid potential irritants
There are a number of common culprits which tend to make some people feel worse. These include:
- Caffeinated beverages
- Certain medications
- Dairy products
- Fizzy soft drinks
- High fatty foods
- Spicy foods
- Sugar free sweeteners such as sorbitol or mannitol
#10 Visit a registered dietitian
Please remember, it is very important not to cut whole food groups from your diet since there is a serious risk of nutritional deficiencies.
If you’re not sure how to go about changing your diet safely, ask your doctor to refer you to a registered dietitian for further help and guidance.
Do you suffer from IBS? Perhaps you would like to share your own tips and advice to benefit the other readers, we’d love to hear from you!