IBS: What To Do?

Having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is not a walk in the park as they say. It is an exasperating condition without explanation and sometimes little relief. How does one manage it when the urgency of finding a bathroom hits or you just feel clogged up and can’t go? It’s estimated that 10 percent to 15 percent of Americans suffer from IBS. What’s most frustrating is that the cause is unknown. Women are twice as likely to have IBS than men.

There is no specific test for IBS. It is not an autoimmune disease but may be a symptom of an underlying autoimmune disorder. IBS diagnosis depends on a pattern of symptoms including:

  • Bloating with abdominal discomfort or change in bowel movements and habits for more than three months
  • Or symptoms on and off for six months
  • Quality of life is affected
  • No other reason can be found for symptoms

If you suspect this is you, talk to your doctor who can assess your symptoms and rule out other causes for your discomfort.

Fortunately, there are no visible signs of damage or disease to the digestive tract even though symptoms may be severe. IBS is termed a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder and is related to problems with how your brain and gut work together. Muscles of the intestinal tract and nerves controlling the muscles cause abnormal contractions of the intestine causing pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.

While you may feel you have no control over managing IBS, managing stress is one way to tackle the problem. People with chronic stress can suffer from IBS, which by itself is stressful. Deep, underlying stress from a life event or chronic daily life stressors can be helped with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). CBT helps you reframe how you manage stress by changing how you react to it. Other effective ways to subdue stress include exercise, meditation, biofeedback or hypnosis. Lack of sleep also contributes to stress so improving sleep habits may help relieve symptoms.

Diet can improve symptoms by eating more fiber and avoiding gluten. Fiber generally improves constipation and helps prevent diarrhea. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends adults should have 25 to 38 grams of fiber daily. The typical American diet is much lower than that. There are two types of fiber that should be included in your diet for good bowel function.

  • Soluble fiber, soluble in water, is found in oats, beans, and fruit.
  • Insoluble fiber, not soluble in water, is found in whole-grains and vegetables.

Soluble fiber may be the most helpful in relieving IBS symptoms because it softens stools for easier relief. Add fiber gradually to prevent bloating and gas until your intestines adjust. Eating three servings of fruit a day provides a good start toward increasing fiber. Both kinds of fiber support healthy gut bacteria.

Gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, may challenge your intestines even if you do not have celiac disease. Try to completely avoid gluten for two to three weeks and see if symptoms improve.

Certain foods called FODMAPs seem to especially aggravate the gut. Research by Monash University in Melbourne, Australia has identified foods that contribute to IBS symptoms and through a structured diet approach have found a way to relieve IBS symptoms.

  • Fermentable: gut bacteria ferment undigested carbohydrates and produce gas.
  • Oligosaccharides: foods such as wheat, rye, onions, garlic, legumes, and lentils
  • Disaccharides: lactose in dairy products
  • Monosaccharides: honey, some fruits, high fructose corn syrup And
  • Polyols: sorbitol and mannitol found in artificial sweeteners.

Managing a FODMAP diet is complicated. Work with a registered dietitian-nutritionist who is trained the FODMAP concept. For more information: https://www.monashfodmap.com/about-fodmap-and-ibs/

Recipe Tip
Fall is an especially good time to add apples and pears to your diet along with squashes like butternut, acorn, and spaghetti squash. A serving of fruit of any kind is a great way to start your day with fiber.

Adams Apple
Core and peel a medium sized apple half-way down the side, leaving half of the skin on the apple. Mix together 1 tbsp. quick cooking oats, 1 tbsp. raisins, 1 tbsp. chopped walnuts, 1 tbsp. apple juice or orange juice, 1 tsp. brown sugar, and 1/8 tsp. cinnamon. Stuff oat filling into cored apple and top apple with extra filling. Place apple in a microwave-safe cup or bowl. Cover with microwave-safe plastic warp and turn back one edge to vent steam. Microwave about 1-1/2 minutes or until apple is tender. Servings: 1

Written by: Mimi Cunningham, Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist, Diabetes Educator

Mimi Cunningham is a dietitian-nutritionist living in Eagle, Idaho. Her nutrition specialty is diabetes education and management. She loves writing about embracing healthy eating as fun plus a route to good health. She serves as a member of the Idaho Foodbank board of directors addressing food insecurity as a challenge to good health for Idaho children and adults.

On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Mimi Cunningham for her contribution to our community website and commitment to healthy living and aging.