The health of your gut in really important – and if your bowel isn’t feeling so great, it can have a mega impact on your life. Here’s how to tell if it’s just a bit of gas, or if you might actually be suffering from something more serious.
What Is IBS?
IBS or irritable bowel syndrome is not a disease. IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder, meaning that the symptoms are caused by changes in how the gut (gastrointestinal tract) works. The term IBS describes a wide range of symptoms that vary from one person to another and can be worse for some people than others.
Signs You Could Have IBS
People with IBS present with varying symptom profiles, most commonly the profile can be “diarrhoea predominant” or “constipation predominant” or there can be an alternating symptom profile. The most common symptoms of IBS (caused by changes in how the gut works) are: wind and/or bloating, diarrhoea or constipation, or both, low abdominal pain, which may ease after going to the loo, or be accompanied by a change in bowel habit or stool appearance, passing of mucus, feeling the need to go the loo even after having just been, a feeling of urgency, feeling that symptoms are worse after eating.
Although the causes of IBS are not 100% known, research suggests that the following may be linked with the development of IBS: brain-gut signal problems, large intestine muscle problems, sensitive nerves in the gut, anxiety/depression and other psychological conditions, infections and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. Research also shows that diet has a minimal influence on IBS in many people, but in others it can trigger and worsen the IBS symptoms.
The First Steps
- Eat regular meals and avoid skipping meals.
- Don’t eat late at night.
- Take your time when eating meals and chew your food well.
- Sit down to eat.
- Be active regularly and make time to relax.
- Keep a food and symptom diary to see if certain foods affect your symptoms.
- Remember symptoms may not be caused by the food you have eaten the meal before, but what you ate earlier that day or the day before.
Give your gut time to adjust to any changes that you make – it may not respond immediately.
How To Eat According To Your Symptoms
1. Dietary fibre may help with constipation but can also generate gas, stimulate gut contractions and make bloating, pain, flatulence and diarrhoea worse. Adjust your fibre intake according to its effect and reduce if necessary. If you increase your fibre intake, do so gradually – sudden increases may make your symptoms worse.
2. For symptoms of constipation only, you could try wholegrain foods, along with vegetables and fruit. Don’t introduce more than 1 extra portion of these foods over a 2-day period.
3. Make sure you are drinking enough fluids – rather go for non-caffeinated fluids.
4. Oats and fruit are good sources of soluble fibre, which help to soften the stool and make it easier to pass; they may also help with symptoms of wind and bloating.
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1. Limit fizzy drinks.
2. Try not to have alcohol every day and then have no more than 2 units a day.
3. Replace lost fluids by drinking plenty – water or non-caffeinated drinks are the best choice.
4. Restrict your intake of caffeinated drinks (for example, tea, coffee or cola) – don’t have more than 2-3 cups per day.
5. Limit insoluble fibre intake from wholegrain breads, bran, cereals, nuts and seeds, if this aggravates your diarrhoea.
6. Avoid skin, pips and pith from fruit and vegetables.
7. Limit fresh and dried fruit to 3 portions a day and fruit juice to 1 small glass a day – make up your recommended ‘5 a day’ with vegetables.
8. Limit intake of foods high in resistant starches.
9. Avoid sugar-free sweets (such as mints and gum) and food products containing sorbitol.
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A Word On Resistant Starches
Resistant starches are carbohydrate foods that are not completely digested by the body. They enter the large intestine where they ferment and produce gas. The following foods contain resistant starch.
Try reducing your intake of the following foods, if these worsen your symptoms:
- Processed food such as potato or pasta salad, or commercially manufactured biscuits and cake.
- Ready-meals containing pasta or potato, such as lasagne, cottage pie, macaroni and cheese.
- Undercooked or reheated potato or maize – instead eat when freshly cooked and still hot.
- Fried chips, potato crisps, fried rice – choose baked potatoes or boiled rice.
- Part-baked and reheated breads, such as garlic bread, pizza base – choose fresh breads.
- Dried pasta – use fresh pasta instead.
- Pulses, whole-grains, sweetcorn, green bananas and muesli that contains bran.
A number of strains of probiotics have been shown to be effective for reducing IBS symptoms in some people. Ask a suitably qualified health professional for advice on products for your specific symptoms. If you choose to try live probiotic supplements or yoghurts, you’ll need to take them daily for at least a month at the dose recommended to see if they are likely to help. Monitor the effect on your symptoms. If a product doesn’t seem to be working, you could consider another brand as the types and strains of bacteria used vary between products.
Important: Dietary management of IBS is very individual. These are general guidelines and may not work for everyone. Before attempting to self-manage symptoms via your diet, it is important to rule out other medical conditions and to have a diagnosis established by an appropriately trained and registered healthcare professional.