Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Symptoms, Triggers & Management
We all want to live our fullest life, but irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can hold us back.
IBS symptoms and their severity can vary from case to case, so the experience of one person might be quite different from another. But one thing most people with IBS will have in common is a feeling of frustration – especially as there’s no known cure.
However, with the right diet and medicine, you may be able to control your IBS symptoms and make everyday life more manageable. In this guide, we’ll talk through IBS in more detail – covering everything from the things that trigger it to the ways you can treat it.
- What is IBS?
- What are IBS symptoms?
- What causes IBS?
- How irritable bowel syndrome is diagnosed
- How to treat IBS
- IBS and its impact on mental health
- IBS FAQs
What is IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common, long-term condition that affects the digestive system. IBS symptoms can include abdominal pain, discomfort, and bowel problems. Because irritable bowel syndrome symptoms can vary from person to person, there’s no single effective treatment for IBS.
It’s believed to affect nearly one in five people across the UK. Research has shown IBS affects women more than men, and signs of irritable bowel syndrome usually emerge in your teenage years or early 20s.
What are IBS symptoms?
There are four different sub-groups of IBS. These are:
- IBS-C – IBS with constipation (C)
- IBS-D – IBS with diarrhoea (D)
- IBS-M – mixed IBS that alternates between constipation and diarrhoea (M)
- IBS-U – an un-subtyped IBS for people that don’t fit into the above categories of IBS symptoms (U).
As you can tell from the sub-types, IBS affects people very differently. Let’s go through some common irritable bowel syndrome symptoms in more detail:
- Diarrhoea – when you pass looser, watery, or more frequent stools than you would normally.
- Constipation – hard, lumpy and sometimes painful stools. These can feel incomplete or irregular and make it harder to maintain consistency in your bowel movements.
- Stomach cramps or pains – these can get worse after eating and feel better after passing stool.
- Bloating – when your tummy feels uncomfortable, swollen and full.
- Flatulence – farting or passing wind excessively.
It’s worth remembering that you won’t necessarily experience your IBS symptoms every day. Sometimes, you might feel better, and other days you might find you feel worse. The bad times are sometimes called flare-ups and can feel like they happen for no clear reason. But other times, IBS flare up symptoms might be caused by what you eat and drink.
Potential IBS triggers in foods and drinks
An effective IBS treatment diet plan doesn’t just mean eating certain things. It’s also about avoiding foods and drinks that may trigger painful and uncomfortable symptoms in the first place. You might already know what types of food your own body struggles to digest properly and should look to replace these in your IBS diet plan.
Keeping a food diary is a great way to track what you eat and help you to work out which foods could trigger your IBS flare-ups or symptoms.
There’s no definitive list of foods to avoid with IBS, as specific foods can spark symptoms in different people. However, common IBS trigger foods can include:
- Insoluble fibre – Found in nuts, beans, potatoes and wholewheat flour, it can be harder to digest and increase pain and bloating.
- Dairy products – Some IBS sufferers find dairy products such as milk to be a common trigger of symptoms.
- Beans and legumes – Despite being high in fibre and protein, some people find them hard to digest, which may cause bloating, gas, and other IBS symptoms.
- Processed foods – Typically high in fat, sugar, and salt, they may trigger IBS flare-ups.
- Caffeine and alcohol – Both are known to trigger IBS symptoms in some people.
What causes IBS?
We know what can potentially trigger IBS, but the medical community is yet to fully understand what causes the condition for some people, and not for others. Some studies point to hypersensitivity in the colon, which causes the bowel muscles to spasm instead of digesting food with steady, slow movements. Other theories flag certain chemicals made by the body and their interaction with nerve signals in the brain. There’s also research on whether bacteria in the bowels can lead to IBS.
Whatever the root cause of IBS, we know that triggering factors can extend beyond simply what we eat and drink. These include:
- Overly sensitive nerves in the gut – This may be linked to altered regulation of the brain-gut axis.
- Medication – Antibiotics, antidepressants, and medicines made with the sweetening agent sorbitol have all been linked to IBS.
- Stress and anxiety – Feeling stressed can mean a greater chance of experiencing IBS symptoms.
- A family history of IBS – You may have a genetic predisposition if IBS runs in your family, increasing your chances of developing the condition.
- Other digestive issues – Cases of stomach flu, food poisoning and traveller’s diarrhoea are also linked to longer lasting issues with IBS.
Whatever the cause, IBS can take a big toll on your day-to-day life. You may experience stress, frustration, and low mood as a result. While there’s no permanent cure for IBS, changing your eating habits and taking certain medication might help you control the symptoms for a more comfortable life.
How irritable bowel syndrome is diagnosed
As there are no specific tests for IBS, diagnoses often come by process of elimination.
Based on your symptoms, doctors may take routine stool and blood tests to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms, like inflammatory bowel disease and coeliac disease, as well as food allergies, reaction to medication, and enzyme deficiencies. It’s important to stick to the same diet throughout these tests to make sure your results aren’t affected.
How to treat IBS
Most people can get support with IBS, but there’s no single medicine or diet that will work for everyone. Instead, you and your doctor will need to work together to create a treatment plan to manage your specific symptoms.
How to manage IBS with lifestyle changes
Changing your eating habits and getting the right balance of healthy nutrients, while avoiding anything that could upset your gut, could help relieve some IBS symptoms. Lifestyle changes can also help.
Let’s go through a few ideas in more detail:
- Cook homemade meals with fresh ingredients.
- Find ways to get plenty of exercise and stay relaxed.
- Try to get probiotics for a month and see if your condition improves.
- Avoid skipping meals or eating too quickly.
- Avoid processed, fatty, and spicy foods.
- Minimise or avoid caffeine in coffee, tea, or soft drinks.
- Add fibre to your diet with nuts, whole grains, and vegetables.
- Avoid drinking large amounts of fizzy drinks and alcohol.
- Stay hydrated with minimum three or four glasses of water a day.
- Apply a heat pad or hot water bottle to your stomach to relieve discomfort.
Medication for IBS treatment
You may be prescribed medication to treat individual IBS symptoms. These can include:
- Laxatives to help relieve constipation.
- Antimotility medicines to help relieve diarrhoea.
- Antispasmodics to relieve cramping and stomach pain.
You can treat diagnosed IBS-related diarrhoea with IMODIUM®. It uses loperamide to slow down your digestive system and restore your body’s natural rhythm. You can absorb more fluids and reduce fluids in the intestine – leading to a normal stool consistency.
- IMODIUM® IBS Relief helps you control medically diagnosed IBS diarrohea.
- IMODIUM® Original capsules can stop diarrhoea in one dose.
- IMODIUM® Instants are perfect for when you’re on the go – dissolving instantly on your tongue.
When to see a doctor about IBS symptoms
If you’re not sure whether you have IBS but you’re experiencing some of the symptoms, it’s best to see your GP to get a diagnosis. If you are feeling anxious or experience a change in mood, you should also contact your GP as this can worsen IBS.
Some symptoms you might associate with IBS could be more serious. You should contact your GP urgently if you:
- Are experiencing unexplained weight loss.
- Have a change in your bowel habits that have lasted more than six weeks (especially if you’re over 50).
- Have a swelling in your stomach or back passage.
- Are bleeding from your back passage.
IBS and its impact on mental health
IBS can have a big impact on your mental health and day-to-day life. You may experience a change in mood as a result. This is due to the link between your gut and brain, which can trigger your IBS symptoms or make them worse.
How to calm IBS anxiety and stress
Managing stress and aiding relaxation can minimise the impact of irritable bowel syndrome. Here are a few tips to help:
- Identify stress points in your life and find ways to avoid or manage them.
- Apply relaxation techniques, like breathing exercises, walking, or taking a bath.
- Do regular exercise.
- Enjoy time socialising with loved ones, or doing the things you love.