Living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a constant battle that leaves many feeling frustrated, exhausted, and emotionally drained. There are days when symptoms are so strong, it prevents you from the daily tasks you want, and need to be doing.
While it’s completely normal to feel this way, it is important to learn to understand what causes your body to react and how to work with it instead of against it. Preparation is key in the successful management of your symptoms. With proper planning and awareness, you can eliminate the fear and reduce the symptoms that prevent you from being an active participant in your life.
What is IBS?
IBS is the most common gastrointestinal disorder that affects between 25 and 45 million people in the United States. A chronic and unpredictable condition with intermittent abdominal pain is accompanied by a variety of other symptoms. These symptoms can change in both intensity and frequency over time.
Among those who have been diagnosed with the illness, 40% of people have mild IBS, 35% moderate, and 25% severe.
- IBS symptoms include:
- Bowel pain
- Changes in bowel movements: diarrhea, constipation or both
- Bloating and abdominal distention
The cause of IBS is not completely understood and thought to be a combination of genetics, other illnesses like infections, and psychological issues like trauma or chronic life stressors.
How to manage IBS?
Because IBS varies from person to person, there are several approaches to managing IBS symptoms.
1. Reduce Stress
Many of us live busy lives with lots of responsibility, and sometimes taking care of ourselves becomes a low priority. However, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Living a full life with IBS means recognizing that taking care of your health and body need to become a top priority. When you take care of yourself, you can take care of your responsibilities better.
Reducing stress means putting yourself first. Some ways you can reduce stress are scheduling downtime, incorporating more exercise, making dietary changes, practicing meditation, seeing a healthcare professional, saying no, and setting boundaries.
2. Work with a healthcare professional
As with any chronic condition, it’s important to work with a healthcare professional who is an expert in managing gastrointestinal disorders. And, one that you can trust to guide you through the illness, provide resources, and support you on your healing journey.
Doctor’s appointments can be stressful and trigger anxiety, which only makes IBS worse. When you visit your doctor, be as prepared as possible to help minimize any stress that may come with your visit. Some tips from our members include:
- “I write down questions ahead of time so when I finally get to see my doctor, I know what questions I wanted to ask” – PLM Member
- “I try to bring someone with me who I’m very close with and knows about my IBS. This way, if anything happens during my visit I have some emotional support” – PLM Member
- “I always give myself extra time to get to and from my appointments. Sometimes there’s traffic so I don’t want to stress over being late. It’s always helpful to have a few minutes to myself to practice some breathing exercises before and after my appointment.” – PLM Member
3. Create healthy eating habits
IBS is highly related to the food you eat. Though it can be a rocky road, it’s one worth going down. Some symptoms can be easily triggered by certain foods, so it can take some time and be difficult to determine a way to eat that is nutritionally sound for your body.
A few guidelines that have been successful for PLM members are:
- Avoid large meals. Heavy meals that are high in calories and fat are much harder for the digestive system to break down and release hormones involved in gastrocolic reflex. Gastrocolic reflex is the body’s way of making room for the food you are eating. But if you have IBS, the reflex is abnormally strong which may cause cramping, urgency to use the bathroom, and even diarrhea. Eating smaller meals throughout the day can help to minimize gastrocolic reflex and reduce symptoms.
- Get into a routine. It’s logical to think that skipping meals will help reduce symptoms. But remember, the goal with managing IBS is regularity. By eating on a regular and consistent basis, your body can learn when to expect meals and is better able to digest them.
- Slowly increase fiber. The daily recommendation of daily fiber intake is 21 to 25 grams for women and 30 to 38 grams for men. But the average American only gets about 10-25 grams of fiber daily. Adding dietary fiber can help regulate bowel movements and improve symptoms. But fiber can be a double-edged sword, too much fiber too fast, or the wrong type of fiber can do more harm than good.
Soluble fiber is the type of fiber found in fruits, vegetables, and some grains. It dissolves in water and forms a gel that is readily fermented, aiding in the passing of bowel movements and digestion.
Insoluble fiber is often found in legumes, seeds, root and cruciferous vegetables, and wheat. As the name suggests, this type of fiber does not dissolve in water and is usually a trigger for abdominal pain, bloating, and gas.
The solubility and fermentation of a particular fiber affects how it’s handled in the GI tract. The Low FODMAP diet approach has been a successful way to identify which type of fiber is causing your symptoms.
Whether you choose to follow a low FODMAP diet, or not, it’s important to slowly increase any type of fiber intake so your digestive tract can adjust to your fiber intake. Some ways to add fiber are:
- Eat whole grains like oats, quinoa, and barley
- Include vegetables in at least two meals per day
- Snack on fruit
- Incorporate seeds like chia, flax, hemp, and sunflower seeds
- Replace meets with legumes which are also high in protein
4. Incorporate Peppermint Oil
Studies have shown that peppermint oil is a safe and effective holistic approach to treating pain and symptoms for adults with IBS. In twelve randomized trials with over 800 IBS patients, those who took coated peppermint oil supplements saw a significant improvement of symptoms.
PatientsLikeMe members have also been advocates for taking peppermint oil supplements:
- “Nothing helped! Then a few years ago my doctor recommended peppermint oil. It’s been the only thing that really helps me. It works wonders!” – PLM Member with IBS
- “I’ve struggled with IBS for about 20 years now and has got worse and worse each year. Then I heard about peppermint oil pills and it works really well!” PLM member with IBS
- “I’ve suffered from IBS for the last 15 years, I highly recommend peppermint oil caps! It really soothes the pain.” PLM member with IBS
You are not alone
While living with IBS is hard, it is possible to manage IBS through lifestyle, diet, supplementation, and support from healthcare professionals and take control of your life again.
Remember, you are not alone in your illness. There are currently over 8,000 members on PatientsLikeMe who are living with IBS. Our members are sharing their symptoms, finding support, and collaborating on IBS treatment. Join the conversation on PatientsLikeMe!