Updated: Nov 2
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition affecting 10-25% of us globally, with rates thought to be underdiagnosed. The exact reason for its existence is unknown, however, it’s predicted that symptoms occur due to the way our brain, gut and nervous system interact. It has also been shown that a family history of IBS can increase our odds of experiencing this condition.
Given we are still relatively unfamiliar with the pathology of IBS, it’s a very hard condition to diagnose. Currently there are no diagnostic tests available meaning diagnosis can only be made by a GP, based on your symptom history.
However, the symptoms of IBS are widespread and can come and go throughout the course of a lifetime. Common symptoms include:
• Abdominal distension
• Changes in bowel habits
• Mucous in stools
Symptoms are often triggered by stress, illness, consumption of specific foods and/or our eating patterns.
NOTE: As many IBS symptoms are similar to Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), we recommend chatting to your GP if symptoms are affecting your quality of life.
So, how can I manage my IBS?
Unfortunately, a cure for IBS is yet to be found. However, the following strategies may help improve your symptoms whilst ensuring you are meeting your nutritional requirements.
Ensure your main meals are spread evenly throughout the day. Aim for three main meals, no further than 5 hours apart. If your schedule doesn't allow for this (meals are further apart), have a small snack in between.
Use mindfulness strategies when eating (e.g the hunger scale or 20, 20, 20 rule) to avoid over-eating
Chew your food thoroughly to avoid swallowing air. Chewing gum and carbonated beverage consumption should also be monitored as these can cause bloating and abdominal distention.
Reduce or avoid gas-producing foods (onions, garlic, brussel sprouts, cabbage, red kidney beans, navy beans, chickpeas and lentils). These foods contain indigestible carbohydrates and can exacerbate flatulence and abdominal pain. If you do decide to include them in your diet, rinse with water first to reduce the starch content.
Be mindful of alcohol consumption as this can irritate your stomach and GI tract
Consider peppermint oil/capsules - some research suggests they can reduce flatulence and abdominal pain
Reduce intake of insoluble fibre by;
removing skins from fruit and vegetables
replacing wholegrain breads and cereals with wholemeal varieties
limiting consumption of fruit (fresh, tinned, dried and juices)
Limit caffeine due to its 'laxative' effect
Avoid spicy foods (e.g. curries, chilli) and high fat foods (fast food, pastries, cakes, cream, ice cream, processed meats)
Avoid sorbitol; a sugar alcohol found in sugar free sweets, chewing gum and beverages which can act as a laxative.
Make sure to drink plenty of water and stay hydrated, particularly if the diarrhoea is severe.
Aim for >2L water per day as this will help to soften your stool
Increase intakes of soluble and insoluble fibres;
Soluble fibre: absorbs extra water in the colon and forms a thick gel that helps to soften stool (think oats, flax seed and psyllium)
Insoluble fibre: adds bulk to your stool, and is found in wholegrain carbohydrates (such as wholegrain bread, pasta and brown rice). However, it is important to increase intakes of insoluble fibre slowly and with plenty of water to prevent exacerbation of symptoms.
Engage in regular physical activity. This helps to stimulate your gut muscles and therefore keeps food moving along your digestive tract.
Prepare meals at home, using fresh ingredients. This way you know exactly what ingredients are present in your meals
Emerging research suggests fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha or kefir, for example) can have a positive effect on gut bacteria and may help to improve symptoms of IBS. You could experiment by adding a range of these foods to your diet.
As stress is a major trigger for IBS flare ups, relaxation techniques such as meditation and breathing exercises can help calm the body and mind.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is another valuable tool used by many to help improve thought processes and control low mood and anxiety.
Taking part in regular exercise releases endorphins which can help to reduce stress.
Making use of a food and symptom diary can also help you to identify whether symptoms are food related. We recommend completing a food diary alongside dietitian support, as it may become obvious that certain foods/food groups are causing you symptoms and need to be avoided.
In this case, it's important to ensure you're still getting all nutrients necessary for optimal health, which may mean including alternative food choices. This is something we can support you with at The Wellness Studio
Probiotic supplements may be beneficial for general ‘gut health’, however, there is not enough research yet to suggest these supplements will assist with symptom management of IBS.
It’s advisable to avoid prebiotic supplements, as it has been shown that many individuals who suffer from IBS are sensitive to these
What is the low FODMAP diet and can you help me with this?
The low FODMAP diet has been specifically designed to help relieve debilitating symptoms associated with IBS. It is a diet that is individually personalised (based on symptoms) and as such, should be undertaken with the support of a Registered Dietitian.
Here at The Wellness Studio, we are certified FODMAP dietitians, having undertaken training with Monash University. We'd love to support you with IBS and help you to start building a symptom-free lifestyle.
The Wellness Studio is an Auckland-based dietetic practice who specialise in gut health, IBS and low FODMAP diets, lifestyle change, weight management and weight loss, women's health, management of chronic health conditions, paediatric food allergies, and fussy eating/food intolerances.
Consultations are also offered online (via zoom) and can be accessed throughout New Zealand.