If you are one of the thirty-million Americans who have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), you know how challenging and frustrating it can be to manage your condition. Irritable bowel syndrome, also known as spastic colon, is a disorder that leads to abdominal pain and cramping along with changes in bowel movements.
IBS is sometimes confused with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), which includes the autoimmune conditions of Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis. In these conditions, the body’s own immune system attacks elements of the digestive system. Individuals who suffer from IBS have similar symptoms to IBD, but the conditions are entirely different because IBS does not cause inflammatory changes to the digestive system.
Characteristics and Causes of IBS
Some characteristic symptoms of IBS include: abdominal pain and distention; frequent bowel movements; constipation; diarrhea; excessive production of mucus in the colon; flatulence; nausea; anxiety and depression. Diarrhea or constipation symptoms often predominate, and sometimes alternate with each other.
The causes for IBS are not always clear, but often there are physical and/or emotional triggers. In my clinical practice, I have seen patients suffering from IBS triggered by undiagnosed food allergies. Given that there is no general agreement on the cause of IBS, it comes as no surprise that no single treatment is currently regarded as being universally applicable to the management of all IBS patients.
How to Manage Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Symptoms
Although IBS can be painful and challenging, in many cases IBS can be controlled by managing diet, lifestyle, and stress. Here are my top ten tips for managing your IBS symptoms so that you can help your gut heal and live a happy pain-free life:
1. Eat small balanced meals, at regular times.
Stomach sensitivity may increase with prolonged periods of not eating, so please don’t skip meals! High fat meals can sometimes be difficult to digest, so ensure that you are eating mostly high quality fats such as those found in nuts, avocados, seeds, fish, and olive oil, along with adequate protein and complex carbohydrates.
2. Chew thoroughly and eat at a leisurely pace.
Many people do not chew their food thoroughly enough. With our busy lifestyles, it can be easy to get caught up and not take the time and attention our body requires when eating. Not chewing well can lead to food not being broken down and digested properly. Avoid “eating-on-the-run” or standing when eating. If you must eat in a hurry, eat a small amount at a time and drink plenty of water.
3. Identify food allergies and intolerance.
It is estimated that up to two-thirds of patients suffering from IBS have some type of food intolerance or allergy exacerbating their symptoms. Common food intolerances include gluten, dairy, eggs, and chocolate. Talk to your nutritionist about identifying potential food allergens.
4. Restore your healthy gut bacteria with probiotics.
IBS sufferers need to heal their gut by repopulating healthy bacteria. Probiotic foods containing live bacterial cultures can help restore the beneficial bacteria. Some foods to include are quality dairy yogurts (if tolerated) and fermented foods such as miso, kefir, tempeh, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Supplementing with a high-quality probiotic with Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium is also often helpful for restoring healthy gut bacteria.
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5. Gradually increase your intake of fiber and drink lots of water.
Fiber functions like a sponge by attracting water into the digestive tract, softening stools and preventing constipation. Fiber is also useful for adding bulk to stool which is helpful when diarrhea is present. Gradually increase your fiber intake and drink lots of water to help the fiber move through the intestinal tract. Over time your body will acclimate to your increased fiber intake.
6. Exercise regularly.
30 to 60 minutes of moderate exercise every day can help reduce stress and promote healthy bowel tone. Even a brisk daily walk can help promote healthy digestion!
7. Avoid carbonated beverages, spicy food, chewing gum, and artificial sweeteners.
These foods can exacerbate symptoms by causing irritation and the swallowing of air. I know one IBS sufferer who used to chew sugar-free gum all day long and just giving up that habit alone greatly reduced her gassy symptoms.
8. Include more bitter foods in your diet.
Bitter foods can improve your digestive function and enhance the absorption of nutrients by stimulating the flow of digestive juices. Try adding chicory, endive, radicchio, and dandelion greens to your meals.
9. Use herbs to reduce your symptoms.
Many people find that their symptoms can be supported with botanicals. Aloe vera juice, peppermint tea, and chamomile tea can help calm inflammation and relax gut spasms. Ginger is tasty as a tea or added to meals and can help relieve nausea and cramping. Try having natural ginger or natural peppermint candies on hand after eating to support digestion. Psyllium and slippery elm may also be used to soften and add bulk to stools.
10. Manage your stress and emotions!
The best nutrition in the world can only do so much if you don’t manage your stress or get adequate sleep! Increased contractions of the colon and uncomfortable symptoms have been shown to occur in patients with IBS in response to stressful situations. Various methods of treatment may be helpful to reduce depression, anxiety, grief, and fatigue, such as individual counseling, guided imagery, meditation, or Tai Chi. If necessary, seek the help of a professional to manage stress or other emotional factors that may be contributing to your IBS symptoms.
Although managing IBS can be challenging, many people begin to notice an improvement in their symptoms rather quickly after making lifestyle changes. Try incorporating these top ten tips so that you can take back control and begin living a happy pain-free life!
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