Understanding the link between food triggers, stress and your symptoms may be the key to managing symptoms from home. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about IBS, and what you can do until you can see your doctor.
- What is irritable bowel syndrome and what causes it?
- Are there other symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome besides abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation?
- Are there certain triggers or behaviors that lead to IBS symptoms?
- How do stressful events lead to irritable bowel syndrome symptoms?
- What can you do to manage IBS symptoms while you’re social distancing?
- Are there other changes you can make to manage IBS symptoms at home?
What is irritable bowel syndrome and what causes it?
Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS for short, is a condition that causes you to have cramping and pain in your abdomen with diarrhea or constipation. It’s not yet known what causes IBS, but research suggests it has something to do with the connection between your gut and your brain.
While IBS may be uncomfortable and even painful at times, there is no evidence that it causes long-term damage to your digestive tract.
Are there other symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome besides abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation?
Yes. Everyone experiences IBS differently, and there are different types of IBS. Although most people complain of abdominal pain, diarrhea and/or constipation, you may have some of the more unusual symptoms too. These include:
- Lower stomach bloating
- Feeling that you haven’t finished a bowel movement
- White-colored mucus in your stool
You may also experience other conditions along with irritable bowel syndrome, including:
- Chronic pelvic pain
- GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)
- Anxiety and/or depression
Are there certain triggers or behaviors that lead to IBS symptoms?
Symptoms of IBS can come and go, and may be associated with certain triggers, such as:
- Bacterial infections in your digestive tract
- Change in the balance of bacteria in your small intestine
- Sensitivity to certain foods
- Experiencing stressful events
Irritable bowel syndrome can also be more common in people who have post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and/or depression.
How do stressful events lead to irritable bowel syndrome symptoms?
What you feel as “stress” is your body’s response to what it perceives as a threat. When you detect a threat — such as a car driving on the wrong side of the road — your stress response allows you to act quickly. When the stress passes, your body calms down and the stress response passes.
But when you experience chronic stress — such as you may feel during the uncertainty of the COVID-19 outbreak — your body doesn’t have a chance to calm down. As a result, you remain in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze. This is when the physical symptoms of IBS can occur and become a problem.
What can you do to manage IBS symptoms while you’re social distancing?
By decreasing possible food triggers, symptoms of IBS may be managed at home until you can get in to see your doctor. This may take some experimentation, as you make small changes in your diet.
Try the following:
1. Increase fiber
If you’re constipated, try to incorporate more fiber into your daily diet. Studies suggest soluble fiber — found in foods like oatmeal, beans and fruit — may help ease symptoms of IBS. Be sure to add foods in slowly and drink plenty of fluids. Too much fiber at once can also cause bloating and gas.
2. Cut back on gluten
Gluten is a protein found in certain grains and is most associated with celiac disease. It’s in many cereals, pastas and processed foods. Try gluten-free options or these satisfying replacements:
- Oatmeal instead of cereal
- Spaghetti squash, not pasta
- Whole foods instead of processed foods
3. Go easy on certain carbs
Certain types of carbohydrates are not easily digested in the colon. These include the following foods:
- Milk products made from cows, including yogurt, ice cream and cheese
- Processed foods containing high-fructose corn syrup
- Sweeteners containing agave or honey
- Fruits such as apples, pears, peaches and cherries
- Wheat and rye grains
- Chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans and soy
- Vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, garlic and onion
Try these replacements:
- Products made from lactose-free milk, rice milk or almond milk
- Bananas, berries, cantaloupe and citrus fruits
- Cucumbers, eggplant, ginger, lettuce, potatoes and spring onions
- Protein such as beef, chicken, fish and eggs
- Nuts and seeds
- Grains made from oats, rice bran and quinoa
Are there other changes you can make to manage IBS symptoms at home?
It may be helpful to keep a log of both your food and your activities to see if certain behaviors seem to trigger symptoms. If so, make note and have this information available when you can get in to see your doctor.
Treatment of IBS involves a number of different approaches under the guidance of your doctor and other professionals such as a nutritionist or dietitian, psychologist or sleep specialist. These treatments may include:
- Diet modification
- Probiotic support
- Sleep hygiene
- Mental health management
You may get a jump-start now by gathering as much information as you can about your IBS symptoms.