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How to cope with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Are you constantly battling belly pain, constipation, diarrhea or all of the above? It could be irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Digestive distress doesn’t have to control you. Let’s cover the basics of IBS—the most common reason people see a gastroenterologist—and offer tips to manage those annoying symptoms.

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome is a sensitivity of your digestive tract to food or stress. The common disorder is characterized by a group of symptoms that occur together without any visible signs of damage or disease in your digestive tract.

The most common symptoms include:

  • Repeated abdominal pain in your abdomen related to bowel movements
  • Changes in bowel movements, such as diarrhea, constipation or both
  • Excessive gas

As many as 10 to 15% of adults experience IBS symptoms. IBS is more common in women than in men.

What causes irritable bowel syndrome?

The exact cause of IBS isn’t known, but the way the gut, brain and nervous system interact may play a role in triggering symptoms. Factors include improperly digested and absorbed food, as well as stress.

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Your gastroenterologist will work with you to help you determine whether it’s stress or something in your diet—or both—that triggers your irritable bowel syndrome.

IBS and diet

Your gastroenterologist can help you identify your IBS triggers. Here are a few of the most common triggers for people with IBS.

Go dairy-free

One in three people with IBS is bothered by eating dairy products; a condition called lactose intolerance. Symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Gas

One of the primary IBS therapies is to go lactose-free for several weeks. Avoiding lactose means eliminating certain foods from your diet, including:

  • Milk, butter and yogurt
  • Cheese and cream cheese
  • Ice cream
  • Cream-based salad dressings
  • Alfredo-type sauces
  • Cream of mushroom-type soups in casseroles

 Acidic foods

Try removing acidic foods, such as tomato and vinegar-based products and citrus, that can irritate the digestive tract. Pay attention to whether your symptoms improve or change.

Artificial sweeteners

Avoid artificial sweeteners, which contain ingredients like aspartame and sucralose, and note any differences.

Track your diet

If there’s still no improvement, keeping a food log of everything you eat and drink can help narrow down what factors make you feel worse or bring on symptoms. Download the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders’ Personal Daily Diary here to make the most of your next doctor’s visit.

IBS and stress

There’s a huge connection between your brain and your bowel. Your serotonin receptors—mood stabilizers and happiness receptors—are hundreds of times denser in your bowel than in your brain. Your bowel can indeed respond to the stress in your life.

Try incorporating stress-relieving practices into your routine like meditation, yoga, deep breathing or time in nature.

How do you control irritable bowel syndrome?

There’s no way to prevent IBS, but most people can improve their quality of life and keep their symptoms from flaring up by managing their diet, lifestyle and stress.

To boost your gut health:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Drink plenty of water to keep your bowels regular
  • Eat high-soluble fiber foods
  • Avoid carbonated beverages, chewing gum and drinking through straws, which are ways you swallow more air
  • Practice stress and relaxation techniques

You may need medication and counseling to treat your IBS in some more severe cases. If you have concerns about your symptoms, talk to your doctor.

Find a digestive specialist near you.

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How to cope with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)