Living with IBS

Up to 30 per cent of people will be affected by this common condition during their lifetime — but you won’t find awareness campaigns or fundraising drives tackling the problem. In fact, people would rather not talk about it at all.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is deemed a ‘syndrome,’ which means a group of symptoms rather than a disease. It’s considered a functional disorder, which means the bowel does not work as well as it normally would. Some of the most common symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain or discomfort — including cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation. The problem can appear at any age, but is more common in women than in men. Symptoms can change over time, and even disappear during periods of remission only to return later on.

One of the main problems with IBS is that doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes it. The muscles and nerves in the bowel appear to be ultra sensitive in people who have IBS. This can cause the muscles to contract too much when you eat, causing cramping and diarrhea during the meal, or shortly after. There’s no test for it — rather, the syndrome is often diagnosed after other potential causes have been ruled out.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot of research done on IBS or finding effective treatments  — not compared to the “big names” like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Because symptoms vary from person to person, it can also be tricky to treat.

What you can do

It can be hard to accept the fact that there is no direct cure for IBS, but there are ways to examine what triggers the flare-ups. Here are some things you can do to cope with the condition:

Get enough fiber. One key nutrient that may actually help IBS sufferers is fiber. Fiber can be helpful because it improves how the intestines work. There are two types of fiber — soluble and insoluble.

Soluble fiber — the kind that dissolves in water to form a gel-like material — helps both diarrhea and constipation. Many foods contain soluble fiber such as apples, beans and citrus. Psyllium fiber, a natural vegetable fiber, is also a source of soluble fiber. It can be purchased in the form of a supplement such as Metamucil which can be added to water or other foods.

Insoluble fiber — the kind that doesn’t break down — can help with constipation by allowing material to move through your digestive system and also by adding bulk to your bowel movements. This type of fiber is found in whole grains, wheat bran and several vegetables like carrots and Brussels sprouts.

The best way to incorporate more fiber into your diet is to start slowly. If you introduce too much too quickly, it can worsen the stomach pains and cause bloating and gas. If this happens, just slow down your intake and let your body adapt before adding more.

Identify and avoid trigger foods. What many people may not realize is that foods are not the actual cause of IBS. However, there are certain foods that may make the condition worse — especially high-fat foods or caffeine. These two ‘triggers’ can cause your intestines to contract, causing severe cramping.

There isn’t a specific diet for IBS because everyone’s triggers are different. A good way to keep track of the foods that bother you is to keep a diary of what you eat and note which ones cause you problems. Pay attention to patterns, not isolated incidences because stress and other factors could be the culprits. Also, be sure that you don’t cut out foods simply because you have heard they may bother you — learn from your own experiences, not someone else’s.

If you notice that dairy products or wheat affect your symptoms, it’s time to go back to your doctor. A reaction to wheat or foods containing gluten could be a warning sign of celiac disease. Problems with dairy products could be due to lactose intolerance — the body’s inability to digest lactose, a naturally occurring sugar in dairy. In either case, changes in diet can bring significant relief.

Manage stress. There’s a brain-colon connection here. People who suffer from IBS often have sensitive colons, and stress can cause them to spasm and cause unpleasant symptoms. There are different ways to deal with stress such as exercise, meditation, getting enough sleep, going to counseling or simply talking to a friend. Try these different options so see which one is right for you.

Consider medications. For severe cases, your doctor may prescribe something to help with the cramping and bloating. These medications can also help to settle your stomach should you become stressed or eat a ‘trigger’ food. They also help to ease spasms in the colon.

However, experts advise against self-medicating with laxatives and medications for diarrhea because they can become habit forming. Talk to your family doctor to learn more about your options.

Try probiotics. Another option to discuss with your doctor is taking probiotic supplements. Some research has shown that they can help improve symptoms of IBS, though their effectiveness hasn’t yet been proven to everyone’s satisfaction. The role of probiotic-containing foods like yoghurt is even more controversial, and they can add significant sugars and other additives to the diet. (See Some germs do you good for more information.)

Talk about it. Some people are hesitant to talk to anyone about their stomach problems because it’s such a personal topic. Don’t be embarrassed — more people than you think are affected by the same problems. Besides, some conditions like food intolerances or ovarian cancer mimic IBS, so it’s important to make sure you get the right diagnosis and treatment.

To learn more visit:
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
Canadian Society of Intestinal Research.

Updated April 2011 by Staff.