IBS, (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) isn’t exactly great conversational material. On the other hand, with about 14% of the US population experiencing IBS-related symptoms such as abdominal pain, gas bloating and alteration of normal bowel function, it’s a topic long overdue for discussion. IBS tends to occur after an infection, in high-stress environments or as we age. And its effects on quality of life make it a condition that simply won’t stay silent.
What it is. The walls of the intestines are lined with layers of muscle that contract and relax in a coordinated rhythm as they move food from your stomach through your intestinal tract. With IBS, the contractions may be stronger and last longer than normal. Food is forced through your intestines more quickly, causing gas, bloating and diarrhea. In some cases, the opposite occurs. Food passage slows, stools become hard and dry. No one knows what causes IBS. Abnormalities in your nervous system or colon may be responsible. It’s also possible that a deficiency in gut bacteria plays a role.
What to watch for. Some of the symptoms have already been mentioned. In addition, consistent mucus in the stool is often a sign of IBS. Constant changes in regularity or the consistency of stool are also warning signs. And abdominal pain, bloating, intestinal cramping, or excessive gas, are all indications that could point to IBS.
What you can do. Start by seeing a doctor. It’s important to rule out other gastro-intestinal issues like coeliac disease, intestinal infections, parasites or functional chronic constipation. While there is currently no cure for IBS, a physician can prescribe a course of treatment including medication, dietary changes and stress relief tactics to ease the symptoms.
Gradually incorporate fiber into your diet. The best approach is to gradually increase the amount of fiber or fiber supplement into your diet over a period of weeks. Examples of foods that naturally contain fiber are whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Avoid problem foods. Certain foods can trigger an IBS reaction. Common culprits include alcohol, chocolate, caffeinated beverages such as coffee and sodas, dairy products, and sugar-free sweeteners such as sorbitol or mannitol. If gas is a problem for you, foods to avoid are beans, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli.
Eat smaller meals. If you have diarrhea, you may find that eating small, frequent meals helps lesson the symptoms.
Drink plenty of liquids. Specifically and definitely water. Alcohol and caffeinated beverages stimulate your intestines and can make diarrhea worse. Carbonated drinks (as you would expect) produce gas.
Exercise regularly. Exercise stimulates normal contractions of your intestines and can help with depression and stress…conditions which often trigger IBS attacks.
Consider a probiotic supplement. The gut requires a certain level of bacteria to maintain normal function. While probiotics don’t cure IBS, in many cases they can help adjust the environment of the intestinal track by boosting its ability to process food.