What is IBS?

What is IBS?

IBS is a chronic long-term gastrointestinal (GI) disorder and is the most common digestive complaints in the UK. 1 in 5 people are believed to suffer from IBS, and over 50% of people often go undiagnosed. The symptoms are most likely to appear during the 20’s and 30’s and affect two to three more women than men.

Different Types of IBS

There are four types of IBS. Identifying which type you have will help you to find an effective treatment plan:

  • IBS-C - Constipation predominant – Often accompanied by stomach pain, bloating, infrequent bowel movements, and hard stools.
  • IBS-D - Diarrhoea predominant – Often accompanied by stomach pain, an urgent need to go to the toilet, frequent bowel movements, and loose/watery stools.
  • IBS-M - Mixed form – Nearly half of IBS sufferers report having alternating constipation and diarrhoea.
  • IBS-U – Unspecified form – This term is used when symptoms don’t follow a regular pattern.

Symptoms of IBS

Many sufferers go several months without any symptoms and experience sudden flare ups that last a few days. Common digestive symptoms include: 

  • abdominal pain or cramps
  • bloating
  • heartburn
  • flatulence (gas)
  • nausea
  • changes in bowel movements
  • diarrhoea and/or constipation
  • mucus in stools

Other symptoms include:

  • headaches
  • pain during sex
  • fatigue and tiredness
  • loss of appetite
  • depression and anxiety

Common IBS Triggers

While the exact cause of IBS is unknown, it is thought to be due an over activity in part of the gut. Food intolerances and allergies are also closely associated with IBS. Triggers can vary from person to person, but some of those often reported include:

  • Caffeine, including coffee, tea and fizzy drinks 
  • Dairy, such as milk and yoghurt, particularly in those who are lactose intolerant
  • Fatty or fried foods
  • Wheat, particularly in those with an intolerance to gluten
  • Chocolate and processed snacks 
  • Alcohol
  • Spices
  • Legumes, beans, chickpeas, nuts and some seeds contain insoluble fibres that are difficult for the digestive system to break down and can cause digestive discomfort
  • Citrus fruits. The digestive system can struggle to break down natural sugars in certain fruits leading to bloating
  • Certain vegetables can increase the risk of trapped air and gas. Common culprits include broccoli, cauliflower, and kale.
  • Stress

How to Prevent an IBS Flare up 

IBS does not have a cure but the symptoms can be treated with a range of diet and lifestyle factors.

Diet tips:

  • Monitor Your Fibre Intake – Fibre is essential, particularly for those with constipation, though too much or increasing the dose too quickly can exacerbate bloating and gas. Many sufferers find it beneficial to lower the amount of fibre in their diet, eating no more than three portions per day. Continue eating soluble fibres, such as oats, barley, rye, bananas, apples, and root vegetables. But reduce your intake of insoluble such as wholegrains, bran, cereals, nuts and seeds.
  • Try a Low FODMAP Diet – FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols, which are types of carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed. In the digestive system, they start to ferment and produce gas, leading to bloating, diarrhoea, constipation and cramps. Try to follow a low FODMAP diet for six weeks to see if symptoms improve. Eventually, you can start to reintroduce certain food groups back into your diet.
  • Take Probiotics – Probiotics are ‘friendly’ bacteria that help to calm and regulate the bowel and promote a healthy intestinal pH. Probiotic supplements have been shown to offer relief from IBS symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, bowel movement irregularity, constipation and diarrhoea.
  • Add Peppermint Oil – Peppermint oil is anti-spasmodic (relieves cramps) and carminative (relieves gas) and so can help to relieve abdominal pain associated with IBS. It works by increasing the production of bile and relaxing the smooth intestinal muscles. Take up to 200mg of peppermint oil three times per day with food.
  • Eat Smaller Meals – Eat smaller meals, more often helps to reduce the strain on the gut. It’s also important to eat your food slowly as rushing increases the consumption of air and increases the likelihood of bloating.

Lifestyle tips:

  • Exercise Daily – Regular exercise improves gas transit through the digestive system. A simple twenty minute stretching routine in the morning can help to get your blood pumping and your digestive system moving.
  • Reduce Stress – Although it is not a psychological disorder, IBS is closely linked to stress thanks to the brain-gut connection. As a result, stress, anxiety and depression are known to exacerbate symptoms of IBS and may make the bowels more sensitive and less tolerant of food. If you suffer from stress, it’s important to find coping mechanisms to help you keep it under control.
  • Stay Hydrated - Drink enough fluids to keep the digestive system functioning at its best. If you suffer from constipation, you need more water to soften and loosen stools. If you suffer from diarrhoea, you are more at risk of losing water from your system, which can result in dehydration. So the more fresh water you drink the better, which can include tasty herbal teas.
  • Keep a Food Diary – Maintaining a daily food diary can be a useful way to identify and avoid potential food triggers. It can also help your doctor to establish an effective treatment plan.