Living with irritable bowel syndrome

IBS can be uncomfortable, but it can also be managed - here's what you need to know


Irritable bowel syndrome is known as IBS for short. It’s a digestive condition that is thought to affect 20% of people in the UK. The symptoms are not serious, but it’s a chronic condition that can impact your ability to live life to the fullest. Once you learn how to manage it, you can gain control of your symptoms and prevent bouts of IBS from being triggered. 

What is irritable bowel syndrome? 

IBS is a chronic condition that causes digestive discomfort. The symptoms include bloating, abdominal cramps, constipation and diarrhoea. You may experience several of these symptoms at once, and they usually come and go for short periods. Once these symptoms are triggered, they can last for days, weeks or months at a time. 

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What are the symptoms of IBS?

The symptoms of IBS can vary from one person to another. They usually include: 

  • Abdominal cramps and pain- these typically occur, or worsen, after eating and ease off after a bowel movement 
  • Bloating- when your stomach feels uncomfortable, full and swollen 
  • Constipation- struggling to pass a bowel movement, straining and feeling like you haven’t emptied your bowels properly 
  • Diarrhoea- watery poo and having a sudden urge to go to the toilet 

In addition, you may experience: 

  • Flatulence 
  • Mucus 
  • Tiredness
  • Lacking in energy 
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty urinating 
  • Nausea
  • Backache
  • Incontinence 

What causes IBS?

It’s not known what exactly causes IBS to occur, but there are several likely factors: 

  • Altered contractions of the intestinal muscles (either stronger or weaker than usual)
  • Abnormal nerves in the digestive system
  • Inflamed intestines 
  • Severe infection 
  • Changes in the gut bacteria 

There are common triggers that cause IBS to flare up. These include: 

  • Milk and dairy products
  • Onions 
  • Pulses
  • Apples and fruits which have stones 
  • Fatty foods
  • Spicy foods
  • Caffeinated drinks
  • Alcohol
  • Sweeteners 
  • Stress

Keep a food and symptom diary to help identify what your triggers might be.

How is IBS diagnosed?

IBS can be tricky to diagnose as the symptoms can also indicate a food intolerance or other issues. Before seeing your GP, it might be useful to keep a diary of your symptoms and how often they occur. Try to note down what you’ve eaten and drank to identify any common triggers. Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and how often you experience them. The more information you have means they can diagnose you accurately. You might get a blood test to rule out other possibilities like coeliac disease. 

How to ease bloating, stomach discomfort and flatulence 

These symptoms can be very uncomfortable and embarrassing, having an impact on your happiness and day to day life. There are several things you can try to ease your discomfort: 

  • Include oats in your diet
  • Consume one tablespoon of linseed each day
  • Avoid hard to digest foods
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners
  • Take Colofac tablets 
  • Use peppermint oil capsules 
  • Drink peppermint tea
  • Avoid chewing gum
  • Cut down on your salt intake
  • Try yoga poses like child’s pose, happy baby and squats
  • Abdominal massage
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Increase your fibre intake 
  • Use probiotics 

If you have identified that certain foods trigger your symptoms, then it’s best to avoid them.

How to ease diarrhoea 

If you experience diarrhoea regularly as a result of your IBS, it’s recommended to cut down on high fibre foods and caffeine and sweeteners. Medications like Immodium are available from pharmacies, but these are not suitable for prolonged use. Foods that might help include toast, rice, bananas and applesauce. 

How to ease constipation 

Constipation can be relieved by consuming soluble fibres. These include: 

  • Linseed
  • Oats
  • Potatoes
  • Pulses 
  • Carrots 

You should also drink lots of water and laxatives are readily available if you need them. Fybogel is recommended for constipation caused by IBS and helps to regulate your bowel movements. 

Managing IBS

Identifying and avoiding your triggers is key to managing your IBS and keeping your symptoms to a minimum. It’s not always possible to avoid them altogether, so using medicines like Fybogel, Loperamide, Colofac or Colpermin capsules where needed will help to relieve symptoms. Try to avoid processed foods, get plenty of exercise and drink lots of water, learn to manage stress and anxiety, take time to relax and try using probiotics. Eat regular meals, taking your time to chew properly before swallowing and avoid spicy and fatty foods. Cutting down on caffeine and alcohol is also recommended. The IBS network can provide you with a key so you can access accessible toilets when you need to. 

IBS and mental health 

It’s common for people with IBS to suffer from a mental health condition, the most common being generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD affects around 60% of IBS sufferers, with another 20% dealing with depression. Stress is also a major trigger for IBS. This can become a vicious cycle where stress and anxiety manifest in physical symptoms, exacerbating IBS; causing you to feel more stressed and anxious about these symptoms. While anxiety is a mental health condition, it also produces physical symptoms which include:

  • Muscle tension
  • Heart palpitations 
  • Tiredness 
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth 
  • Trembling
  • Excessive sweating
  • Stomach ache
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Insomnia 
  • Headaches
  • Pins and needles 

The effects anxiety can have on the body can easily trigger IBS, mainly because you are likely to feel tense, nervous and on edge, which commonly affects the stomach and upsets digestion. 

Managing anxiety if I have IBS

Suppose anxiety is having a significant impact on your life, in that case, talking therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and counselling can be helpful to address your fears and learn to manage them. Self-help workbooks and classes are also useful in managing your anxiety. Mindfulness and yoga are beneficial to focus your mind and learn to relax your body and mind. Medications like SSRIs (antidepressants), pregabalin and benzodiazepines may be prescribed if other treatment methods don’t help. Learning to manage your anxiety will reduce IBS flare-ups and make it more manageable. 

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NHS > What is IBS?
Mayo Clinic > Irritable Bowel Syndrome
IBS Network > What Can I Eat?
Medical News Today > 18 Ways to Reduce Bloating
eMedicineHealth > Diarrhoea
NHS > Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

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