If you think you may have IBS, see your GP. They should be able to tell you whether it is IBS or another condition that affects your gut. IBS symptoms tend to flare up and then die back again, so you may not have them all the time, but this can vary.
Related: Eight ways to control your IBS symptoms
Diet and IBS
Making changes to your diet can make a difference to the severity of your symptoms. If you have bloating and wind, for instance, try cutting back on the amount of gas producing foods you eat – beans, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, sugar free mints and chewing gum.
Lactose, found in milk, yogurts, cream and cheeses can also cause wind and bloating. Reduce the amount of these foods in your diet, and try lactose-free versions for about a month to see if that makes a difference.
If you suffer with constipation, make sure you’re drinking enough – you should have two litres of fluid a day. Increasing the amount of fibre in your diet can also help, but make sure you do this gradually. Whole grains are a good way of adding fibre, as is eating more fruit and vegetables. Try adding oats and linseeds to cereal, yogurt and soup. This will add fibre to your diet, but make sure you drink fluid with them.
If you have diarrhoea, drink plenty of fluids, but limit fruit juice to one small glass a day, and tea, coffee and soft drinks to three a day. Reduce the amount of whole wheat bread and cereals you eat. Steer clear of products containing sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol (found in mints, gum and sugar-free sweets). And, as with gas and bloating, it’s worth trying to cut back on lactose for two to four weeks. If it doesn’t make a difference then normal milk and dairy products are probably OK.
It’s a good idea to keep a food and symptom diary while you’re making changes to your diet. You’ll be able to check back and see what you ate, and what your symptoms were, and how much pain or discomfort they caused you. This will help you see which of the dietary changes you’ve made have helped your symptoms.
The BDA, the Association of UK Dietitians has a useful Food Fact sheet on this topic. You can find this at www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/IBSfoodfacts
Probiotics are supplements that contain beneficial bacteria that you would normally find in your gut. These can help to keep bad bacteria at bay, and so may help with IBS symptoms. You can buy these in capsule form, or they are also in some yoghurts and milk drinks.
Other steps that can help are eating three regular meals each day. Eat slowly, and don’t eat late at night. Try to cut down on the amount of fatty foods you eat. These include, cheese, chips, pizza, chocolate, cake and fatty meats (sausage and burgers). Also try to cook with fresh ingredients as much as you can.
It is also a good idea to consider looking at the FODMAP diet. FODMAPS are Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. These are sugars or sugar alcohols that are known to be poorly absorbed, and are found in a range of foods and drinks.
FODMAPs include apples, pears, stone fruits (plums, peaches, prunes) peas and beans, wheat, onions and wheat. Because they are poorly absorbed, when they get into your colon, they ferment, releasing gas. This causes the bloating, wind and pain associated with IBS. For an information sheet go to www.theibsnetwork.org/the-self-care-plan/diet/is-it-food-intolerance-or-the-intolerant-gut/fodmaps/
Lifestyle and IBS
Anxiety, stress, depression and other negative feelings often trigger IBS flare-ups, which cause a sudden increase in your symptoms. Anything that helps you live a calmer, happier life will help to keep your gut calmer too.
Regular exercise, such as walking, swimming, cycling, yoga, playing tennis etc. can help you feel better, and is good for your overall health too.
Complementary therapies such as relaxation and mindfulness techniques, hypnotherapy, acupuncture and reflexology can also help. If you decide to try a complementary therapy make sure that the practitioner has been trained through an accredited organization. Ask friends if they can recommend someone they have tried and been happy with.
Medication and IBS
Anti-spasmodic medicines can ease the pain in your tummy. They reduce the pain caused by the spasms by relaxing the muscles in your gut. There are different medications, so if one doesn’t work for you, talk to your GP about trying another.
For some people with IBS constipation can be one of the main problems. Increasing the amount of soluble fibre you eat can help (see above). Your doctor may also suggest you take laxatives for a while, to help deal with the problem.
If diarrhoea is a problem, an anti-diarrhoeal medication might help. One of the most commonly used is loperamide, which you can buy over the counter or ask your doctor for a prescription. Again, if this doesn’t suit you, ask your GP about the alternatives.