As this month is Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) awareness month we thought we’d shed some light on this syndrome. Awareness has significantly increased over the past few years as we’ve become much more in tune with our bodies and how food leaves us feeling. IBS has become more common in recent years and whilst this may be due to awareness, it’s also arguable that factors such as stress, over-exercising and eating behaviour may contribute to the symptoms.
Before we explore how to identify and manage IBS symptoms let’s understand some of the basics:
IBS is a chronic condition whereby the bowel doesn’t function properly. As a result it leads to abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence, constipation and/or diarrhea (when the bowel is overactive). However, it’s important to note that these symptoms are not exclusive to IBS and can be experienced as part of other conditions such as Coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel disease (e.g. Chron’s and Colitis). Whilst IBS is not a life threatening disease it can significantly infringe on an individuals daily life.
There are a variety of factors which may cause the digestion to become impaired which can lead to IBS. As a result there is no one cause. Some common causes include:
- Bacterial overgrowth
- Changes in microbiome in the small intestine
- Inflammation in the bowel
- Inability to digest certain foods
Additionally certain diet and lifestyle focuses can further contribute to the symptoms of IBS. Some common factors include:
During a stress response the body switches off it’s focuses on factors such as digestion and reproduction in order to tackle the ‘fight or flight’ situation. Consequently individuals who are chronically stressed are at risk of having impaired digestion which for an IBS sufferer can trigger flare ups.
- Certain foods
It’s unlikely that a food allergy will cause IBS however, intolerances to certain foods may worsen symptoms as the body is unable to digest the foods. Common foods include: dairy products, some vegetables, high sugar foods, gluten-containing foods, spicy food and alcohol. Often when individuals start to manage the condition properly they can start to reintroduce foods which used to set off flare ups without a response. Although this must be done under guidance of a professional.
- Hormonal changes
Hormone levels fluctuate regularly. Although women in particular may find that at certain times of the month they are more susceptible to flare ups. This can be due to what their hormones are doing in relation to their monthly cycle.
- Eating behaviour
For those suffering with IBS eating whilst you’re distracted and at a fast pace may trigger symptoms as you’re not allowing your brain to engage in the eating processes which in turn can inhibit the release of digestive enzymes and may impair your ability to digest that meal effectively.
- Excessive intensive exercise
For chronically stressed individuals high intensive exercise can increase cortisol levels which in turn can contribute to impaired digestion due to the focus on the ‘fight or flight’ mode.
Evidently there are plenty of factors which may affect IBS but how can we manage it?
IBS management should really be done under the supervision of a nutritionist or dietitian as the advice should be personalised purely for the reasons mentioned above that so many factors can affect the syndrome.
However, some common ways of managing IBS include:
- Use of the FODMAP diet
There is plenty of research to suggest that the FODMAP diet may help to alleviate symptoms and help to repair the gut.
The diet works by eliminating types of poorly digested sugars and fibres and stands for fermentable oligosaccarides, disaccahrides, monos and polyols. Whilst this diet may not cure IBS it can help to manage it. Although the important focus here is to ensure that these foods are reintroduced. This should definitely be done with guidance as the diet can be difficult, limiting and pose risk of nutrient deficiencies.
For some individuals probiotics may help to re-set the gut. You should ensure that you have the correct strain and dose for your requirements. It isn’t necessarily a case of the higher the better.
- Engaging in lower intensity exercise
Lower intensity exercise such as yoga, pilates and even walking can help to reduce stress and alleviate some of the excess cortisol you may be walking around with which in turn helps some people to manage their symptoms.
- Eating slower
As mentioned in the triggers eating fast whilst distracted may inhibit the digestive process. It’s important to switch on the digestion process through engaging with the food and eating slowly to allow your body time to process it and digest the food effectively.
There you have a whistle stop tour of IBS, what it is, the causes, the triggers and some management tips. Please remember that the management of IBS is really specific to each individual so should you feel you need further advice please contact a professional.
Halmos, E. P., Power, V. A., Shepherd, S. J., Gibson, P. R., & Muir, J. G. (2014). A diet low in FODMAPs reduces symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Gastroenterology, 146(1), 67-75.
Pletikosic, S., Tkalcic, M., & Hauser, G. (2016). The role of daily mood in the stress-symptom relationship in IBS patients. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 85, 77.
Addante, R., Naliboff, B., Shih, W., Presson, A. P., Tillisch, K., Mayer, E. A., & Chang, L. (2018). Predictors of Health-related Quality of Life in Irritable Bowel Syndrome Patients Compared With Healthy Individuals. Journal of clinical gastroenterology.