IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) is a common condition of the digestive system and can cause stomach cramps, bloat, diarrhoea and constipation. It is thought that 10-20% of the UK population experiences IBS at some point in their lives.1 The symptoms can vary from one person to another and tend to come and go in bouts, often due to periods of stress.
There is no cure for IBS and experiencing it can be painful, debilitating and reduce your quality of life. However, with treatment symptoms can be relieved by undertaking a few changes to diet and lifestyle.
The NHS states that the precise cause of IBS is unclear, but may be triggered by stress, problems with the immune system or a problem with how the muscles of your gut squeeze food through the bowel.2
Food is passed along the bowel by regular contractions of the muscles in the wall of the bowel. Pain and other symptoms may develop if the contractions become abnormal or overactive. It is not completely understood why this happens. Patient UK states that it may have something to do with overactivity of messages sent from the brain to the gut.3About half of people with IBS can relate the start of symptoms to a stressful event in their life.
Ways to help treat IBS
Changing your diet to an IBS friendly diet can take time, determining what works best for you, as there is no ‘one size fits all’ diet for people with IBS.
Fibre can play a key role in helping symptoms of IBS. Fibre is the part of the food which is not absorbed into the body. It remains in your bowel, and is a main part of faeces (stools). Opinion on the role of fibre in the diet has changed over the years. It is currently believed that it is the type of fibre eaten that can affect IBS symptoms.
There are 2 main types of fibre:
- Soluble fibre found in oats, barley, fruits, vegetables, linseeds
- Insoluble fibre found in wholegrain bread, bran, cereals, nuts
NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) suggests that for those suffering with predominantly diarrhoea IBS you may find it helpful to cut down on insoluble fibre. For those with constipation it can help to increase the amount of soluble fibre and drink extra water.
Your IBS symptoms may also improve with these tips:
- Have regular meals and take your time when eating.
- Avoid missing meals or leaving long gaps between eating.
- Drink at least eight cups of fluid a day, particularly water and other non-caffeinated drinks, such as herbal teas.
- Restrict your tea and coffee intake to a maximum of three cups a day.
- Reduce your intake of alcohol and fizzy drinks.
- Reduce your intake of "resistant starch" (starch that resists digestion in the small intestine and reaches the large intestine intact). It is often found in processed or re-cooked foods.
- Limit fresh fruit to three portions a day. A suitable portion would be half a grapefruit or an apple.
- If you have diarrhoea, avoid sorbitol, an artificial sweetener that is found in sugar-free sweets, including chewing gum and drinks, and in some diabetic and slimming products.
- If you have wind and bloating, consider increasing your intake of oats. For example, oat-based breakfast cereal or porridge and linseeds (up to one tablespoon a day).
- A final tip from The IBS Network, ‘IBS is about life. Learn how your lifestyle and diet can affect your symptoms. Don't try to do too much. Look upon your gut as your alarm signal. If it goes off, slow down, relax, don't push through your symptoms, take a break. Work with your gut, not against it.’4
Never start a food-avoidance and exclusion diet (where you avoid eating a class of food, such as dairy products or red meat) unless you're doing so under the supervision of a professional dietitian.
In conjunction with dietary advice it can be helpful to increase the amount of exercise you do as well as reducing the impact of stress in your life.The relationship between the mind, brain, and overactivity of internal organs such as the bowel is complex. Some people have found relaxation therapies useful in controlling symptoms of IBS.
NHS guidelines now state that the use of acupuncture, reflexology and colonic irrigation can be useful in treating IBS.5 Acupuncture and reflexology aim to not only relax the patient to help control levels of stress, but also work at a more deeper level to induce more long term benefits and help the body work more harmoniously. Colonic irrigation can have numerous benefits to treating IBS. As well as helping with issues such as bloat and constipation, it can also work directly on improving the muscular walls of the colon to help achieve a more long term improvement.