IBS: Symptoms, causes, treatments & relief
Living with this distressing digestive complaint can be difficult. Find out what causes IBS, common symptoms and how to manage it
Ever experience stomach pain and bloating? If so, you may be wondering if your symptoms are actually irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
IBS is a common gut condition, affecting up to one in five people in the UK at some point. So, could you be one of them?
There’s no known cure for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). But through careful diet choices, it’s often possible to control your symptoms.
W have included a few dos and don’ts when it comes to what to eat with IBS.1
About two in 10 people in the UK have IBS. It’s common.
But what is IBS? Put simply, it’s a long-term condition that leads to frequent abdominal discomfort and bowel symptoms.
It has no specific cause. And symptoms vary from individual to individual. This inconsistency means IBS is usually only diagnosed at the point when all other possibilities are ruled out.2
Once you have the diagnosis, a common reaction is to change what you eat. But if you’re looking for a single diet that tells you what to eat with IBS, unfortunately, this simple solution doesn’t exist.
However, there are lots of foods that you can eat (or avoid eating) to help manage your symptoms. We pick up some of the key themes in these dos and don’ts.
In this article, you’ll find out
- What IBS is
- Types of IBS
- IBS symptoms
- IBS causes
- IBS triggers
- Warning signs of IBS
- How to prevent IBS
- IBS do’s and don’ts
What is irritable bowel syndrome?
IBS is a long-term condition that affects the large intestine. IBS causes spells of stomach pain, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation.
These spells come and go and can last anywhere from a few days to a few months each time.
IBS is a lifelong condition that usually first affects people between the ages of 20 and 30. Women are two times more likely to be affected than men, with some people experiencing more severe symptoms than others.
What are the 3 types of IBS?
You may be interested to know that there are actually three different types of IBS. These include:
- IBS-C – mainly experience constipation and hard or lumpy stools
- IBS-D – mainly experience diarrhoea and loose or watery stools
- IBS-M/IBS-A – you experience equal amounts of symptoms above3
What are the symptoms of IBS?
Symptoms can vary in severity but for some people, they can be very painful and distressing. Common IBS symptoms include:
- Stomach cramps
- Excess gas
- Constipation, diarrhoea or both4
What causes IBS?
It’s not clear why IBS affects some people, and its exact cause is unknown.5
However, it has been linked to the following:
- Gastroenteritis – IBS develops in up to 10% of previously healthy individuals after a bout of the stomach bug 6
- Changes in gut microflora – the type and number of friendly bacteria in the gut may be different in someone with IBS7
- Increased gut sensitivity – people with IBS may have issues with their nervous system that make them ultra-sensitive to everyday abdominal changes8
- A faulty gut-brain connection – the muscles in your intestines squeeze food through the digestive system but if the messages between your gut and brain become disrupted, food may pass through too quickly (diarrhoea) or too slowly (constipation)9
What can trigger IBS symptoms?
The exact cause of IBS remains unknown but it is thought that stress, a gut that’s sensitive to pain, and digestive problems may be linked to the condition.
During times of stress, many people with IBS experience flare-ups. Certain foods may also trigger IBS.
These are different for each person but fizzy drinks, fatty food, alcohol, chocolate and caffeine are the most common.
Diet: skipping meals or leaving long gaps between mealtimes can be a trigger. Certain foods can also set off an episode of IBS, such as caffeinated and fizzy drinks, alcohol, chocolate, spicy or fatty foods.10
Stress: according to a 2014 study in World Journal of Gastroenterology, anxiety or stress can upset the gut-brain connection. This may then lead to overactivity in your gut and trigger an IBS flare-up.11
What are the warning signs of IBS?
Read on to find out about the warning signs of IBS…
Changes in bowel habits
Switching between constipation and diarrhoea, your bowels may also feel like they haven’t been completely emptied after going to the toilet.
Stomach pain or discomfort
Ranging from a dull ache to sharp pains or cramps, it’s usually worse after eating and feels better after going to the toilet.
You often feel bloated and your stomach looks swollen, especially in the evening.
Caused by retention of gas resulting in bloating and passing more wind than usual.
A sudden, urgent need to go to the toilet
People with IBS may sometimes quickly need to find a toilet to relieve themselves.
On occasion, mucus may be mixed with your stools. At other times, you might pass mucus alone when going to the toilet.
Problems with your bladder
Those with IBS may need to urinate more often than usual. Sometimes they may wake up at night to urinate and may often find it difficult to fully empty their bladder.
Feeling low on energy
IBS often causes a lack of energy with those affected feeling tired and run down.
How to prevent irritable bowel syndrome
There’s no cure for IBS, but making certain lifestyle changes can help prevent or reduce your symptoms, it is important to follow your GP’s advice:
Follow an ‘IBS diet’
Rather than eating three meals, try eating five or six smaller meals a day – this can help reduce the impact of food on an already over-stimulated digestive tract. You should also eat slowly, to avoid further stress on your digestion.
Consider switching to a low-FODMAP diet, too – but only with the help of a dietitian.12 This cuts down on gas-forming foods such as wheat, garlic, onions, milk and mushrooms.13
A 2016 review by New Zealand’s University of Dunedin found 86% of people with IBS following a low-FODMAP diet experienced relief from their symptoms, including pain and bloating.14
Take steps to reduce stress
If you have IBS, it’s especially important to include stress-reduction techniques in your life; calming your mind may help soothe your gut, too. Breathing exercises, tensing and then relaxing your muscles, and positive visualisation can all help IBS.15
Yoga may also have the potential to relieve IBS symptoms, according to a 2016 German review.16
Try peppermint oil
According to a 2008 report in The BMJ, peppermint oil has natural antispasmodic properties, and can help soothe symptoms of pain and bloating.17
In 2011 researchers from Australia’s University of Adelaide discovered how peppermint oil has this effect – the active ingredients in peppermint temporarily cause pain-sensing fibres in the gut to become less sensitive, easing inflammation.18
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