Reviewed by Sharon Denny, MS, RDN
Irritable bowel syndrome is not a disease; it is a group of symptoms that occur together that affect the large intestine. Studies estimate that IBS affects 10 to 15 percent of adults, twice as many women as men. Though no specific cause is known, several factors may contribute to IBS, including heredity, lifestyle, allergies, an infection or an abnormally large number of bacteria growing in the intestine.
Certain foods and stress may trigger symptoms. Often, diet changes, stress management and a healthy, active lifestyle can keep IBS under control.
Symptoms of IBS vary, but typically include one or more of the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Constipation or diarrhea
Your doctor may order medical tests to rule out other causes of these symptoms.
People with IBS have a sensitive intestinal tract in which stress and diet may play a role.
- Stress. The colon contains nerves that connect to the brain. For people with IBS, stress can stimulate spasms in the colon, causing discomfort and pain.
- Diet. Some people with IBS find symptoms worsen after eating large meals or high-fat foods. When symptoms become worse after drinking milk or eating dairy products, this may be due to lactose intolerance.
Changes for the Better
The best way to manage IBS is to understand what may cause episodes of discomfort and then work to eliminate or minimize them. While medication, stress management and probiotics can help, the focus is on diet and eating habits. Both can have significant impact. Simple changes in your diet can offer relief and reduce future flare-ups.
- Establish regular eating habits. Eating at regular times helps regulate your bowels.
- Eat small, frequent meals instead of large ones. This will ease the amount of food moving through your intestinal tract.
- Eat fiber-rich foods. Try whole fruits, vegetables (including beans) and whole grains including rolled oats, brown rice and whole-wheat bread. Make changes slowly. Fiber helps move food through your intestine, but it takes time for your body to adjust to eating more. Adding too much too quickly may result in gas, bloating and cramping.
- Drink enough fluids. Fiber draws water from your body to move foods through your intestine. Without enough water and fluids you may become constipated.
- Watch what you drink. Alcohol and caffeine can stimulate your intestines; this can cause diarrhea. Artificial sweeteners that contain sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol may cause diarrhea too. Carbonated drinks can produce gas.
- Identify problem foods and eating habits. Keeping a food diary during flare-ups can help you figure out what you may be eating that's causing a problem.
Tap Into a Great Resource
A registered dietitian nutritionist can help you manage IBS through diet. An RDN will work with you to identify which foods and habits might cause trouble and you will learn healthy eating strategies to reduce the risk of pain.
It is not uncommon to suffer nutrient shortfalls if you struggle with a digestive condition. An RDN can also help you consume all the nutrients you need to support good health.
Use the Find a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist tool to locate an RDN in your area to help address your IBS.
Reviewed April 2014