IBS can cause severe discomfort and is often difficult to treat as patients have different triggers.
Irritable bowel syndrome may be inherited. It is linked to oversensitive nerves in the gut, causing debilitating pains and cramps among other symptoms. But there are ways to manage it and reduce its impact on your life.
1. Consider medication
Speak to your doctor about what is recommended for your particular type of IBS. If you have IBS with constipation (IBS-C), then laxatives could help. These range from osmotic laxatives, which increase water inside the colon, to cathartic laxatives, which stimulate the colon walls, although the latter may not be effective long-term. If you have IBS with diarrhoea (IBS-D), then over-the-counter medications such as loperamide can help control your symptoms.
2. Try probiotics
Research has suggested that changes in gut flora may trigger IBS by increasing inflammation and altering digestive motility. For some people, probiotics – available in capsules, powders and yoghurts – can alleviate symptoms, balancing gut flora by inhibiting the growth of disease-causing bacteria, slowing down bowel movements and fighting inflammation.
3. Move to a high-fibre diet
If you have IBS-C or IBS-D, then increasing dietary fibre with fruit, vegetables, beans, whole-grain breads and cereals may relieve symptoms. High-fat meals can cause problems by inducing vigorous colon contractions more rapidly than usual, which can trigger cramping and diarrhoea. However, IBS has quite a wide spectrum and only one in six IBS patients experience improvements from this diet. Others find that it worsens symptoms, and may benefit from a different regime such as a ketogenic (low carb) diet, aimed at reducing inflammation.
4. Take exercise
Research has suggested that 30 minutes of exercise, such as walking at a moderate pace, five days a week can significantly help to ease common symptoms such as constipation and abdominal cramps. It is best to consult your doctor about what exercise regime may be suitable, but try to keep a routine so you exercise at the same time each day and avoid exercising within an hour of meals.
5. Reduce your stress levels
Stress is widely thought to trigger IBS, partly because of the neural connections between the brain and the gut, and any external stressors make the mind more aware of painful colon spasms. IBS may be an auto-immune disorder, and the immune system is heavily affected by stress. Try to make time in your day for relaxation sessions and, if you have a stressful life, consider taking up yoga or meditation, or practise breathing exercises.
6. Keep a food diary
IBS patients have different triggers, so keep a daily diary of all the foods and drinks that make your symptoms flare up. If you experience bloating, you may want to try eliminating gas-producing foods such as resistant starch (found in cold potatoes and bread), beans, cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, and carbonated drinks. Fructose, found in sweet vegetables and fruit, can also trigger diarrhoea, gas and bloating in IBS sufferers, and it is worth remembering that one in 10 IBS sufferers are lactose intolerant, so minimising dairy products can provide relief. Caffeine can make diarrhoea worse, so limit coffee and tea to three cups a day.
7. Try peppermint oil
Studies have shown that peppermint oil may be effective in reducing the severity of abdominal cramps and spasms, bloating and the intensity of bowel movement urgency and pain when passing stools, particularly in patients with IBS-D. Try purchasing enteric-coated peppermint oil, specially coated tablets that slowly release the oil in the small intestine.