Written by: Toni Foot
What is IBS?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a digestive problem that can cause extreme abdominal pain, usually after eating. Other symptoms include severe bloating or flatulence, passing mucus, or urgency (and consequently incontinence). There are three general patterns of symptoms: IBS with diarrhoea, IBS with constipation, and IBS with both diarrhoea and constipation. As yet it is unclear why an individual develops IBS but there is evidence to suggest that gut sensitivity plays a significant role in the symptoms experienced.
IBS may develop after an episode of food poisoning or changes to your digestive system. It can also begin if your body becomes more sensitive to pain in your gut, causing your body to ‘over-react’ to stimuli that would not previously have caused discomfort.
When our bodies experience stress or anxiety there are several physical changes that take place so that we can deal with the stress effectively. For instance, if you begin crossing a road then a car comes round the corner, you are in extreme danger. You need to be able to move quickly to ensure your safety so your body interrupts certain non-essential bodily functions (such as digestion) in order to put more energy into the functions required immediately (such as increasing your heart-rate and producing sweat). This is a normal physical response to stress.
However, when a person is under stress for extended periods of time, it can have an effect on the way their body functions on a long-term basis, which could be why individuals suffering with IBS often find that stress has an effect on their symptoms.
IBS can be treated in many ways. If you think you have IBS you should always discuss your condition with your GP. There are a variety of medicines that may help you to manage your symptoms and your GP may also suggest antidepressants or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help you manage stress or anxiety levels and to help you manage your condition psychologically.
If you suffer from diarrhoea then decreasing your insoluble fibre intake may relieve your symptoms. Insoluble fibre is in wholegrain bread, bran, cereals, seeds or nuts. Your GP will be able to help you identify any issues with your fibre intake and how to manage it according to your individual needs.
One of the biggest triggers for episodes of IBS is food. There is no definitive answer to which foods you should eat or avoid, but there are several foods that cause a reaction in many people. The best way to identify which foods trigger IBS for you is to remove them from your diet and see how this affects your symptoms.
1 Caffeine, alcohol and fizzy drinks
Alcoholic and caffeinated drinks dehydrate the body, which can trigger IBS. If you drink lots of coffee, limit yourself to 3 cups per day. It is important to stay hydrated though so try to drink plenty of water or non-caffeinated drinks like herbal tea.
2 Fatty or highly processed foods
These can be difficult to digest when you suffer from IBS. Try to avoid fast foods as there are often massive amounts of fat in them. If you love chips, why not try making them at home instead? Cut up some potatoes, drizzle with olive oil and bake in the oven.
3 Spicy foods
Some spices can irritate your digestive system, causing some of the symptoms of IBS to worsen. Experiment with spices individually if you think this could be a trigger for you. Foods that are ‘hot’ can also cause irritation so try opting for milder versions of foods you enjoy.
4 The cabbage family
Vegetables from the cabbage family are renowned for increasing flatulence or bloating and as a result may aggravate IBS symptoms. Although these vegetables are very nutritious, the symptoms of IBS can outweigh the health benefits of eating them. Not all individuals find these foods triggers, but it is worth experimenting and working out if they affect you. The cabbage family includes broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts along with the many varieties of cabbage available.
5 Some pulses
Similarly to cabbages, pulses may trigger IBS as they can be difficult to digest and cause flatulence or bloating. Beans are the main culprit, although lentils can also cause a problem. Watch out for hidden lentils too as they can be used to bulk up some processed foods such as soups.
Dairy products such as milk, cream, ice cream, butter or some cheeses can trigger IBS. The sugar in milk (lactose) is difficult to digest and many individuals with IBS are also lactose intolerant. Try using unsweetened milk alternatives such as almond or coconut milk.
This high-fibre vegetable can trigger IBS. It also contains lots of sugar: another potential trigger food for some people.
8 Green peppers
Some people are able to cope with red peppers as these are a ripened variety and seem easier to digest.
As with any major change in your diet, it is always a good idea to discuss your condition and proposed changes with your GP.