As many as one in five Americans experiences symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)—cramping, abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, constipation. And yet just 15 percent of those affected seek help, meaning the majority of people with IBS suffer silently. You don’t have to be one of them.
Scientists do not know exactly what causes IBS, but they do know that people with IBS have highly sensitive colons. Muscles in the intestines naturally contract to help move food from the stomach to the colon, but the contractions IBS sufferers experience are more intense and last longer. This can force food through the intestines too fast, which causes gas, bloating and diarrhea. Or it can slow down the passage of food, leading to dry stools and constipation.
While each person with IBS is different, there are common issues that tend to cause these problems. Learn more about them and what you can do to address them so you can calm your bowels, restore balance and live a more comfortable, enjoyable day.
IBS Aggravator: Chronic Stress
Just like nerves of excitement give you stomach butterflies, emotional stress has been shown to stimulate muscle spasms in the colon. Daily life pressures like work deadlines, financial stress and relationship conflicts can cause anxiety, depression, tension and anger—all of which can increase your risk for experiencing symptoms of IBS.
IBS Rx Commit to managing your stress through daily meditation or yoga, both of which have been shown to reduce stress levels by lowering heart rate and blood pressure. In one study in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, women who practiced daily mindfulness activities like gentle yoga and meditation for eight weeks reported substantially less severe IBS symptoms compared to a group that only attended an IBS support group.
IBS Aggravator: Your Diet
It’s thought that fried, fatty foods can be hard on the intestines and difficult to digest. Fiber-rich foods, such as beans and broccoli, can worsen gas. Some people also have food allergies that can contribute to IBS.
IBS Rx Avoid fried and fatty foods to give your intestines a break and minimize the risk of constipation and diarrhea. Consider keeping a food journal so you can pinpoint any foods that may contribute to symptoms. Unless you suffer from constipation, aim for a daily maximum of 20 grams of fiber to minimize gas pains. (A cup of beans has about 10 grams of fiber, an apple with skin has about 3 grams.) You can also try spacing out your fiber intake during the day so as not to overwhelm your intestines all at once.
IBS Aggravator: Big Portions
Large meals put extra pressure on the digestive tract, which can lead to cramping and diarrhea in those with IBS.
IBS Rx: Stick to five small meals throughout the day, or cut down on your portion sizes if you prefer to eat three squares.
IBS Aggravator: Bubbly Beverages
Carbonated beverages actually contain gas, which leads to intestinal gas and bloating in some people. In addition, drinking caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea and soda can stimulate the intestines, making diarrhea worse.
IBS Rx: Choose non-caffeinated and non-fizzy drinks. If you’re dealing with diarrhea from IBS, you’re at an increased risk for dehydration, so it’s crucial to consume at least 64 ounces (about eight cups) of liquids each day.
IBS Aggravator: Skipping Exercise
It’s understandable that you may not feel like braving the gym when you’ve got cramps, diarrhea or constipation. But studies show that exercise can lessen the intensity of these discomforts. For example, researchers in Sweden found that when a group of IBS sufferers began exercising at a moderate to vigorous intensity three to five days a week, their IBS symptoms lessened dramatically—a control group that didn’t exercise didn’t experience the same improvement. Scientists suspect the benefits are twofold: Exercise decreases stress levels (one of the major IBS triggers), and it also promotes a healthy digestive system by stimulating normal contractions of the intestines.
IBS Rx: Consider doing a workout close to home, such as a jog around your neighborhood or an exercise DVD in your living room. Once you get more comfortable, you can venture farther away from home—you may even find that your new routine eliminates your symptoms so effectively that you feel confident working out in other places. If you have to cut a workout short because your bowels don’t cooperate, try not to be discouraged—just give it a try again later. Research shows that short exercise sessions spread over the course of the day are every bit as beneficial to the body as one longer workout.
If addressing these IBS triggers doesn’t help your symptoms, or your discomfort is severe, discuss your prescription options with your doctor. Sometimes abnormal gut bacteria are responsible. Whatever the cause of your symptoms, there are some medicines your physician can prescribe that may bring you relief, like antispasmodic drugs, laxatives, antidepressants and pain relievers.
You should also make sure to discuss changes in the frequency or appearance of your stool with your doctor. There’s no need to be self-conscious: Physicians discuss bowel movements and digestive health all of the time and only want to help you feel better.
One or two bowel movements a day is expected, and you should not feel pain when relieving yourself. Healthy feces are brown, smooth and well-formed, and they don’t float or contain blood or mucus.