Bloating, cramping, abdominal pain, unpredictable bowel patterns and figuring out what you can and cannot eat - there’s no denying that IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) can be challenging, emotionally draining and disruptive to day-to-day life. But whether you’ve been struggling for years, recently received a diagnosis or are experiencing IBS-like symptoms, there are a number of ways to make living with the condition a whole lot easier.
What is IBS?
IBS or irritable bowel syndrome is a functional gastrointestinal condition experienced by around one in five Australians.1 It is characterised by a group of symptoms including abdominal pain and cramping, diarrhoea and constipation (which may occur together), abdominal bloating, excessive wind and a sensation that the bowels aren’t fully emptied after a bowel motion. More women than men are affected by IBS and symptoms typically begin in early adulthood.1
The underlying cause of IBS is likely due to many factors and differs from person to person. It may have started after an infection or a period of high stress, it might be due to taking certain medications or it might be related to altered communication between the brain and the gut (the gut-brain axis), increasing gut sensitivity.1 More and more evidence is also linking the development of IBS with changes to the gut microbiome.2 There are certain foods that can also trigger IBS symptoms, or make them worse.
How is IBS diagnosed?
If you suspect that you may have IBS, it is very important to consult your GP. IBS shares many of the same symptoms with other gastrointestinal conditions and these need to be ruled out. The journey to diagnosis can be long, frustrating and drawn out, as there is no particular test for IBS. It is usually diagnosed by looking at your symptoms, examining your medical and family history, performing a physical exam and possibly ordering different tests to screen other health conditions.1
Despite there being no obvious visible signs of illness, IBS is a real problem with real symptoms and should be treated seriously. It is not “all in your head”, and isolating feelings can oftentimes make the sufferer feel invisible. Finding a trusted health professional/s who supports you and who has experience in successfully managing IBS is an important part of the journey to diagnosis.
How can IBS be managed?
The chronic and unpredictable nature of IBS means it can often dominate a person’s entire life, taking over whether they go out socially, what they eat or drink and how they engage in day-to-fay activities. Thankfully, there are a number of ways to adjust to and enjoy all that life has to offer despite an IBS diagnosis. Each individual with IBS has a unique experience and not all strategies and treatments will work for all sufferers. It is important to listen to your body and work with your healthcare provider to find the best techniques for you. Managing IBS may include a range of treatment options prescribed by your healthcare professional, including medication and behavioural therapies.
Some of the ways you can also help manage symptoms of medically-diagnosed IBS symptoms include:
- Pinpoint your food triggers: Keep a food diary to help you identify foods that trigger your symptoms. Problematic foods will differ from person to person and it’s all about trial and error. Some people with IBS find that gas-producing foods like broccoli, cabbage, beans, lentils, onions, cauliflower and brussel sprouts trigger their symptoms. Lactose in milk and milk products may also be a problem. Alcohol, fizzy drinks and artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sorbitol and mannitol are also common culprits for flare-ups.3 Some IBS sufferers find following a low-FODMAP diet for a time helpful, as these types of foods can cause digestive distress. The low-FODMAP diet isn’t supposed to be followed long term but is rather a short-term discovery process to find out the foods that are troublesome for you. It is best to consult an experienced health professional like a dietician, nutritionist or naturopath to help you identify your triggers and maintain a healthy balanced diet.
- Try relaxation and mindfulness techniques: Look for ways to help manage daily stress, which can play a significant role in triggering IBS symptoms. You could do a yoga class, try tai chi, qigong or do a ten minute meditation each day, try simple breathing techniques, go for a walk around the neighbourhood and prioritise self-care.
- Incorporate gentle-moderate exercise into your routine: Research shows that keeping physically active can be an effective tool for improving IBS symptoms and quality of life.4 IBS-friendly exercise includes cycling, swimming, yoga, walking, hiking, aerobics, tai chi and qigong.4 Moderation is key, as pushing your body to the extremes, such as running a marathon, can make symptoms like diarrhoea worse in some people.
- Consider a targeted probiotic supplement: Lactobacillus plantarum 299v has been shown in clinical trials to reduce the frequency and intensity of symptoms associated with medically diagnosed IBS like gas and abdominal pain.5 Other probiotic strains, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium animalis spp. lactis, have also shown beneficial effects.6 Inner Health has two research-backed probiotic supplements to support gut health and provide targeted IBS support. Inner Health IBS Support contains Lactobacillus plantarum 299v and may help reduce the symptoms of medically-diagnosed IBS, decrease gas and pain and maintain normal bowel function. Inner Health IBS Control provides extra strength symptom relief with three evidence-based probiotic strains and may be more appropriate for those experiencing regular flare-ups.
- Plan ahead and find support: Other tips to help you manage the day to day of medically-diagnosed IBS include allowing sufficient time to relax on the toilet, since the bowels usually don’t work well under pressure. Take note of the location of the toilets in unfamiliar surroundings and pack supplies like a change of underwear, clothes and wipes in case an emergency arises. Living with a condition like IBS can feel isolating and embarrassing, though it is not an uncommon experience. Although it might be uncomfortable talking about IBS, confiding in a close friend, family member or a work colleague can be a great support and make you feel less alone, as well as discussion with your trusted healthcare provider.
- Better Health, 2021, Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), viewed 18 August, https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs
- Menees S, 2018, ‘The gut microbiome and irritable bowel syndrome’, Research, vol 7 F1000 Faculty Rev-1029, 9
- Health Direct, 2023, Irritable bowel syndrome, viewed 18 August 2023, <https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs>
- Zhou C, 2018, ‘Exercise therapy of patients with irritable bowel syndrome: A systematic review of randomised controlled trials’, Neurogastroenterol Motil, vol 31, no 2
- Ducrotte P, 2012, ‘Clinical trial: Lactobacillus plantarum 299v (DSM 9843) improves symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome’, World J Gastroenterol, vol 18, no 30, pp4012-8
- Martoni C, 2020, ‘Lactobacillus acidophilus DDS-1 and Bifidobacterium lactisUABla-12 Improve Abdominal Pain Severity and Symptomology in Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Randomized Controlled Trial’, Nutrients, vol 12, no 2, p 36