Even if you're one of the 10–15% of people in the United States with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you might still feel like you're the only person who has to plan their day around frequent bouts of diarrhea, constipation, bloating and gas. But you don't have to resign yourself to a life of discomfort and distress. A few small, personalized adjustments to your diet and lifestyle, made with the help of an AMITA Health gastroenterologist, can be the key to living well with an IBS diagnosis.
Signs and Symptoms of IBS
IBS can cause a lot of uncomfortable symptoms in your digestive tract, and it can vary a lot between two different patients. Sometimes, the bowel moves digesting food through the intestinal tract too slowly, absorbing excessive moisture from the waste and leaving the sufferer constipated. Otherwise, material might be pushed through the intestines too quickly, making the waste watery and loose and giving the patient diarrhea.
The end result? One person with IBS could experience chronic diarrhea while another suffers from constipation, and a third might alternate between the two. So if you're experiencing a shift in your bowel habits that you can't explain, the culprit could be IBS.
Bloating, abdominal pain, cramping and gas are also common symptoms of IBS, which might improve after you pass gas or have a bowel movement. One last thing to remember: since IBS is chronic, you might already be accustomed to the symptoms. In other words, even though there hasn't been a big change in your bathroom routine, a long history of unpredictable bowel movements could be a sign of IBS.
We've already covered how no two people's IBS symptoms are the same. The causes and cures aren't as simple as a one-size-fits-all shift to diet and lifestyle. When you work with an AMITA Health gastroenterologist, you can figure out a personalized management plan to help you live well with an IBS diagnosis. Developed with the help of a doctor, this plan could have several different elements, including stress management, psychosocial therapy, medication and, of course, diet.
What foods trigger your IBS symptoms might not be the ones that trigger your neighbor's. But some symptoms might be eased with these dietary strategies.
- Snack on fruit, nuts and popcorn: High-fiber foods like almonds, popcorn, pears and strawberries can ease constipation symptoms. You might even want to try fiber supplements if those foods don't clear up the problem.
- Choose your greens wisely: If gas and bloating is an issue, check your cruciferous veggies intake. That's greens like broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts and cauliflower. Be aware of how many legumes you're eating, too (there's a reason they're called “the musical fruit”). Lactose could be another culprit of that uncomfortable feeling.
- Practice healthy eating habits: No matter what symptoms you have, a diet rich in fruits, veggies and whole grains, and low in fast food and deep-fried snacks, will serve your stomach well.
- Watch what you eat: If your IBS is unpredictable, keeping a journal of your meals and symptoms is an easy way to get a handle on what triggers what.
Manage Your Stress Levels
Some people may not show many symptoms of anxiety except surrounding gastrointestinal-related issues. Psychosocial struggles such as anxiety, depression, stress, the loss of a loved one or a battle with addiction can also result in IBS symptoms. Many different types of psychological therapy have been shown to improve IBS symptoms.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): One of the standard forms of psychological therapy, CBT focuses on the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behavior. In general, it's about working on yourself in talk therapy sessions designed to put your mind at ease.
- Relaxation Therapy: Rather than a psychological approach, relaxation therapy targets the physical symptoms of anxiety. You might practice slow, abdominal breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.
- Hypnotherapy: When severe chronic symptoms of IBS continue after other management approaches have failed, hypnotherapy can be a transformative treatment. Don't get hypnotherapy and hypnotism confused — this therapeutic solution won't brainwash you, it will train you to intuitively soothe your mind and body during moments of high stress.
- Biofeedback Therapy: Biofeedback is a computer-based treatment that uses a video monitor to track bodily functions and re-establish healthy processes. By painting a clear picture of the muscles and nerves of the pelvic floor, doctors can implement a more effective treatment plan.
Think you might have irritable bowel syndrome, or need help getting your IBS symptoms under control? Talk to your doctor or consult a gastroenterologist.