How can one cope with IBS?
IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, is what’s called a ‘functional’ bowel problem – there is nothing wrong with the individual bits of your bowel, but they don’t work smoothly together to digest your food. It affects up to 1 in 5 of people in a lifetime, and affects women far more often than men. Theoretically, IBS should only be diagnosed if symptoms have persisted for at least six months. These include bloating which comes and goes (rather than persistent); abdominal pain which is ‘classically’ relieved by opening the bowels and made worse by eating; bouts of diarrhoea and/or constipation; needing to rush to the toilet or strain to pass a motion; passing mucus with the stool or a feeling of not completely ‘finishing’ a bowel movement. IBS isn’t life-threatening, but it is a long term condition which can have a major impact on your life. It’s essential to check with your doctor if you get these symptoms, since the symptoms of IBS can occasionally be due to a potentially life-threatening cause such as ovarian cancer. Once you have a diagnosis, you will need to look carefully at your lifestyle to try and keep your symptoms under control. Lifestyle changes can go a long way towards controlling the symptoms of IBS, but the same changes won’t work for everyone. There are medicines which may help if lifestyle isn’t enough. Lifestyle factors include avoiding fizzy drinks; keeping up your fluid of non-alcoholic, non-caffeine containing drinks (although not more than a glass or so of fruit juice). If you’re troubled by ‘diarrhoea-predominant’ IBS, a high fibre diet can make symptoms worse. If your symptoms are ‘constipation-predominant’, fibre may help, but it depends on the type of fibre you eat. Try limiting ‘insoluble’ fibre like wholemeal and wholegrain foods, of fruit and vegetables with skins. Soluble fibre (rye bread, porridge, peas, bananas, plums, berries, apples, pears and root vegetables without the skins may be better. Try cutting out caffeine in coffee, tea and colas. Keep a diary of your symptoms, because this makes no difference to some people and it would be a shame to deprive yourself long term if you’re not doing any good. Cut out alcohol and again, keep a diary. Even the 2-3 units a day recommended as a limit for women (3-4 units for men) can make symptoms worse. Eat regularly and take time to sit and eat at a table. You’re more likely to swallow air, making bloating and wind worse, if you’re rushed when you eat. Avoid sugar free sweets and gum containing sorbitol.