What Can You Do About Irritable Bowel Syndrome


What Can You Do About Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome as men. from shutterstock.com

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects one in ten Australians, and twice as many women as men. Its symptoms include chronic abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhoea, and bloating. These have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life.

Many people use the term irritable bowel syndrome to describe general symptoms of gut and bowel dysfunction. But diagnosis requires meeting strict, diagnostic criteria. Known as the ROME criteria, these require a person to be experiencing abdominal pain, on average, at least one day per week. The pain must be associated with two or more of the following:

  • defecation
  • a change in the frequency of stool
  • a change in the form (appearance) of stool
  • having occurred over the last three months with symptom onset at least six months before diagnosis.

Tests aren’t always needed for a diagnosis if these symptoms are present. But an accurate diagnosis of IBS is important as some symptoms, such as pelvic pain, may overlap with other diseases such as endometriosis or inflammatory bowel disease. If other symptoms are present, a doctor may need to perform blood tests, pelvic ultrasound, endoscopy or stool tests to rule out similar disorders

Some symptoms are considered “red flag” symptoms and should prompt further testing and specialist referral. For example, if you have rectal bleeding, weight loss and are aged over 50 when symptoms start, it is not IBS.

What causes it?

A single cause for IBS has not been identified. IBS may run in families, but we still don’t know if this is due to shared genetics or environmental factors. An episode of gastroenteritis, an infection caused by viruses or bacteria, increases the risk of developing IBS. But this is usually temporary and symptoms gradually improve.

People with IBS often also have anxiety and depression. Research suggests early childhood trauma can predispose some people to IBS in later life. This is because the gut and brain talk to each other through nerve signals, the release of gut or stress hormones, and other pathways.

We have long known that emotions can directly alter gut function. But studies now show that gut function also affects emotions. One Australian study indicated that for some people gut symptoms occur first and the psychological symptoms occur as a result. But this is not true for all people with IBS.

What do I do?

Non-drug treatments should be considered initially, and more than one treatment strategy may be needed to help improve symptoms.

Good-quality evidence shows a low-FODMAP diet reduces IBS symptoms. FODMAPs are carbohydrates that produce excess gas when digested. They can be found in roots such as onions and garlic, and fruits (or seeds) like legumes, apples, pears and mangoes. For the best result, a person should start a low-FODMAP diet under the guidance of an experienced dietitian.

It’s a common misconception that people should keep to a low-FODMAP diet for life. Foods like onions, which are high in FODMAPs, are also good prebiotics and promote the growth of friendly gut bacteria. Restricting these can result in low gut bacterial diversity, which is linked to autoimmune diseases and obesity. That’s another reason a dietician should guide people through the diet over a few weeks and avoid unnecessary dietary restriction.

Simple dietary measures include adding more soluble fibre to the diet. This can include psyllium, which can be bought as a powder from chemists and health food shops. Insoluble fibres like bran are generally unhelpful.

A trial of probiotics might help. These could be trialled for one month and then re-evaluated by the GP, but are unlikely to be useful if used indefinitely. Exercise has been shown in randomised trials to improve gut symptoms in people with IBS.

Managing stress and anxiety are key to improving symptoms for many people. Psychological therapies have been shown in trials to help symptoms more than placebo or other interventions. This is particularly so when the psychologist is interested in IBS.

 What Can You Do About Irritable Bowel SyndromePeppermint oil can help reduce stomach cramps related to IBS. from shutterstock.com

Clinical trials have also shown that, for some people, hypnotherapy that is directed at the gut is just as effective as a low-FODMAP diet. The benefits are still seen at six months. Hypnotherapy is not for everyone, however, and multiple sessions are needed for symptoms to improve.

What about medications?

IBS affects quality of life but it doesn’t change a person’s risk of early death or cancer. So, treatments should have few side effects to be acceptable. Clinical trials have shown that medications such as peppermint oil (usually given in capsules) can reduce troublesome abdominal cramps with minimal side effects.

Melatonin can improve symptoms through better sleep quality where sleep is disturbed.

The choice of drug should be tailored to each person’s symptoms. For instance, low-dose antidepressants can be helpful for some people, especially where significant depression or anxiety symptoms exist together with IBS. Medications that reduce inflammation are generally unhelpful, as consistent and clinically apparent inflammation is not part of the syndrome.

A few new approaches are being trialled for IBS, including faecal transplants and new medications. But all of these need better long-term data before they appear on the market.The Conversation

About The Author

Suzanne Mahady, Gastroenterologist & Clinical Epidemiologist, Senior Lecturer, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

The Low-FODMAP Diet for Beginners: A 7-Day Plan to Beat Bloat and Soothe Your Gut with Recipes for Fast IBS Relief

healthAuthor: Mollie Tunitsky
Binding: Paperback
  • Sushovan Guha MD PhD

Studio: Rockridge Press
Label: Rockridge Press
Publisher: Rockridge Press
Manufacturer: Rockridge Press

Buy Now
Editorial Review:

"From shopping lists to meal plans to reintroduction phase guidance, Mollie’s created the user-friendly roadmap that the FODMAP community has been missing." ―Brittany A. Link, MSW, RD, LD, Registered Dietitian, Certified Wellness Coach

When you have IBS, planning your day around the whims of your stomach can be frustrating and even embarrassing. Just ask Mollie Tunitsky, whose own struggles with IBS led her to follow and find success with a low-FODMAP diet. Determined to share this achievement with others, Mollie lays out an easy to follow meal plan for fast relief from pain and bloating in The Low-FODMAP Diet for Beginners. Designed for anyone new to the low-FODMAP diet, The Low-FODMAP Diet for Beginners equips you with everything you need to settle your stomach in just seven days.

The Low-FODMAP Diet for Beginners includes:

  • A 7-Day Low-FODMAP Meal Plan containing shopping lists, a symptom tracker, and helpful tips
  • Over 75 Low-FODMAP Friendly Recipes indicating dairy-free, one pot, quick prep, 30 minutes or less, vegetarian, or vegan dishes
  • A Low-FODMAP Introduction covering basic information about the FODMAP diet and how it affects your body

The Low-FODMAP Diet for Beginners includes recipes such as: Banana Pancakes, Vegetable Frittata, Grilled Bok Choy, Creamy Pumpkin Pasta, Vegetable Fried Rice, Baked Coconut Shrimp, Chicken Piccata, Classic Turkey Burgers, Flourless Chocolate Cake with Berry Sauce, and much more!

Make plans and follow through with The Low-FODMAP Diet for Beginners meal plan.

The Complete Low-FODMAP Diet: A Revolutionary Plan for Managing IBS and Other Digestive Disorders

healthAuthor: Sue Shepherd PhD
Binding: Paperback
  • The Complete Low FODMAP Diet A Revolutionary Plan for Managing IBS and Other Digestive Disorders

Brand: Sue Shepherd
  • William D. Chey MD

Studio: The Experiment
Label: The Experiment
Publisher: The Experiment
Manufacturer: The Experiment

Buy Now
Editorial Review:

A diet plan proven to relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive disorders—presented by the world’s leading experts and tailored to you

“A must-have survival guide”—Gerard E. Mullin, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine and Director of Integrative GI Nutrition Services at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

“What can I do to feel better?” For years, millions of adults who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have asked this question, often to be met with scientifically unfounded or inadequate advice.

The low-FODMAP diet is the long-awaited answer. In clinical trials, over three quarters of people with chronic digestive symptoms gain significant relief by reducing their intake of FODMAPs—difficult-to-digest carbs found in foods such as wheat, milk, beans, soy, and certain fruits, vegetables, nuts, and sweeteners.

In The Complete Low-FODMAP Diet, Sue Shepherd and Peter Gibson explain what causes digestive distress, how the low-FODMAP diet helps, and how to:

• Identify and avoid foods high in FODMAPs
• Develop a personalized and sustainable low-FODMAP diet
• Shop, menu plan, entertain, travel, and eat out with peace of mind
• Follow the program if you have IBS, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or diabetes, and if you eat a vegetarian, vegan, low-fat, or dairy-free diet.

And, with 80 delicious low-FODMAP, gluten-free recipes, you can manage your symptoms, feel great, and eat well—for life.

The IBS Elimination Diet and Cookbook: The Proven Low-FODMAP Plan for Eating Well and Feeling Great

healthAuthor: Patsy Catsos MS RD LD
Binding: Paperback

Studio: Harmony
Label: Harmony
Publisher: Harmony
Manufacturer: Harmony

Buy Now
Editorial Review: The complete guide for overcoming IBS by discovering your triggers and building a personalized, doable, and fulfilling diet around nutritious, delicious foods that let you finally feel your best.

Patsy Catsos, MS, RDN, LD, pioneered the use of the low-FODMAP diet to find your unique FODMAP fingerprint when she self-published IBS--Free at Last!, ushering in a new era of treating IBS through diet instead of medication. Written for at-home use, her book quickly established itself among doctors and other specialists as an invaluable tool for anyone suffering from IBS, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, SIBO, and gluten sensitivity.

This new, definitive edition offers the theory along with a program that walks you through eliminating FODMAPs (difficult-to-digest carbohydrates found in a variety of otherwise healthy foods) and adding them back one by one--the most usable, thorough program available. And its 56 delicious recipes, 24 full-color photos, and comprehensive guides to high- and low-FODMAP foods make this the bible of the low-FODMAP lifestyle. Here is your plan for eating well while finally feeling great.

Note: This is the updated and expanded edition of IBS—Free at Last, including its landmark 8-step program.


follow InnerSelf on


 Get The Latest By Email


follow InnerSelf on


 Get The Latest By Email