Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that affects the digestive system. It is quite common, and can begin in childhood, adolescence or adulthood. It is characterized by the following symptoms:
- Abdominal pain
- Constipation, diarrhea, or alternating constipation and diarrhea
- Feeling of incomplete evacuation
- Sudden urge to have a bowel movement
- Relief of symptoms after a bowel movement
While the intensity of symptoms can be quite severe, IBS does not cause any structural problems within the bowels and therefore does not pose a serious threat to your health.
Causes and triggers
It is not known for sure what causes IBS. It may be the result of abnormal contractions of the colon and intestines (which can result in severe cramping) or even food sensitivities or allergies. Other theories suggest that an infection of the intestines, such as traveller's diarrhea, may trigger IBS.
Since IBS is a chronic condition, there is no cure. Symptoms however, can be managed by changing certain behaviours or through the use of medication.
Although food does not cause IBS, it can have an effect on its symptoms. Certain eating habits can help ease IBS-related discomfort or pain, including:
- Eating slowly and chewing food well
- Avoiding behaviours that could increase the ingestion of air (e.g., drinking soft drinks, chewing gum, talking while eating, eating quickly)
- Avoiding large meals or those that are high in fat
- Cooking vegetables before eating
- Staying hydrated (drinking between 1.5 and 3 L per day), especially if constipation is an issue
- Avoiding alcohol and caffeine
- Increasing fibre intake
- Eat more fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains
- Take psyllium supplements (e.g., Metamucil)
- Increase fibre intake slowly to prevent bloating
People with IBS are often less tolerant of certain food groups (e.g., legumes). These foods are designated by the acronym FODMAP: Fermentable, Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols. If you have IBS, you may benefit from a low-FODMAP diet.
If you decide to try a low-FODMAP diet, it is important to use suitable alternatives that are nutritious, and to make sure that you are maintaining a healthy, well balanced diet. Consult an experienced nutritionist if you are interested in trying this approach.
|Not well tolerated||Well tolerated|
|Vegetables||Garlic, artichokes, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, shallots, onions, leeks, peas||Eggplant, carrots, pumpkin, celery, cucumber, squash, endives, green beans, lettuce, bok choy, spring onions (green only), parsnip, sweet peppers, potato, tomato|
|Fruits||Apricots, avocado, cherries, dried fruit, mango, watermelon, nectarines, peaches, pears, apples, plums||Citrus fruit (oranges, grapefruit, lemons, mandarins), ripe bananas, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, passionfruit, kiwi, honeydew melon, grapes|
|Protein sources||Certain marinated or processed meats, legumes, cashew nuts, pistachios, dairy products (milk, yogurt, fresh and soft cheeses like ricotta or cottage)||Lactose-free dairy products, certain cheeses (brie, camembert, feta), seafood, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, eggs, tempeh, firm tofu, meat, poultry|
|Grains||Wheat or barley (in large quantities), inulin, corn, rye||Oats, spelt, gluten-free products, quinoa, rice|
|Sweeteners||Fructose, mannitol, honey, corn syrup, sorbitol, xylitol||Aspartame, maple syrup, table sugar|
Other conditions, such as anxiety, depression, headaches, and sleep disturbances are more common in individuals who have IBS. The following measures could be of some benefit:
- Get enough sleep
- Learn to better manage stress
If these measures are not enough to adequately manage your IBS, your health care provider may suggest the use of probiotics or oil of peppermint, or may prescribe medication to help relieve some of your symptoms (certain antidepressants or antispasmodics).
When should I see a medical professional?
- If there is blood in your stool
- If you have fever
- If you experience significant weight loss
- If you feel tired and are unusually pale
- If you have persistent diarrhea or chronic constipation
For more information:
Canadian Society of Intestinal Research