See all > Living & wellness
March 19, 2019 • read
Why your digestive difficulties could be IBS
No one is a stranger to stomach problems. We’ve all dealt with an unpleasant episode of bloating, diarrhea or constipation. But for those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, symptoms like these are constant. IBS can be mysterious, and the symptoms scattered, but it’s estimated that between 13-20% of Canadians suffer from it at any given time. So let’s take a look at the symptoms of and treatment for IBS.
What is irritable bowel syndrome?
IBS is a gastrointestinal disorder that affects how the bowels function. The causes of irritable bowel syndrome are not well understood, and no test can confirm if you have it. Doctors diagnose it based on the symptoms a patient reports. It sometimes runs in families, suggesting that some cases have a genetic basis. IBS can begin at any time of life, and symptoms can sometimes disappear for years at a time. There is no cure, but with proper treatment, patients can experience long periods of relief.
What are the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome?
Gastroenterologists are doctors who specialize in treating stomach and intestine disorders, and with an estimated 5 million Canadians suffering from IBS, it is one of the most common conditions they see. When it comes to the symptoms, gastroenterologists often talk about the ABCDs of IBS: abdominal pain, bloating, constipation and diarrhea.
Those with IBS can suffer regularly from either constipation or diarrhea, or they can alternate between the two. Some report being incapable of having a bowel movement (BM) for long periods of time, or the feeling of incomplete BMs. Others report frequent watery BMs, and even fecal incontinence at times. IBS can cause physical feelings ranging from discomfort to intense pain, and can have a profound effect on your life. Many with the condition report missing work or social interactions because of it.
While symptoms of IBS are similar in males and females, women are affected in disproportionately larger numbers than men. It is unclear why, but for every two men with IBS, there are seven women suffering from it.
Treatment for IBS
While what causes IBS is unclear, many different things can trigger it. Certain foods can be a culprit, as can stress, illnesses or parasites such as those that cause travellers’ diarrhea. Because there are many different factors that can bring it on, individualized treatment for irritable bowel syndrome works best.
Certain medications such as laxatives or anti-diarrheals can work, while other patients find some relief through stress management techniques. The most common way to manage IBS, however, is through diet, and many find that incorporating a soluble fiber supplement (such as psyllium) can help.
The Canadian Digestive Health Association also recommends taking peppermint, as it may ease symptoms by soothing spasming muscles in the digestive tract. Restorative sleep and exercise are also crucial for people with IBS.
Managing IBS with diet
While there are different ways of treating IBS, the best approach is often to figure out the best diet for your irritable bowel syndrome. Most of us who suffer from IBS find that we can tolerate fish, chicken, rice and bread fairly well. Cereal, cooked vegetables and some fruits (often with the skin removed) also work for many. All IBS sufferers should drink eight to ten glasses of water a day and try not to skip meals. You may not feel like eating, but skipping a meal actually leads to more air in your digestive system, increasing the likelihood of bloating and gas.
Different foods trigger different reactions in different people, but there are some general foods to avoid with irritable bowel syndrome. You’ll probably want to avoid raw fruits and vegetables — especially gas-producing ones such as broccoli, brussels sprouts and cabbage. You should also limit your intake of alcohol and fried foods, and avoid chewing gum, since it causes your body to take in air, promoting bloating and gas. Some sweeteners such as sorbitol and fructose cause discomfort in many as well.
IBS is a potentially debilitating condition that affects huge numbers of people, both in Canada and around the world. Sadly, many are too embarrassed to speak to their doctor about their symptoms and seek out the help they need. While there is currently no cure for IBS, with your doctor’s help, and in conjunction with healthy lifestyle changes, symptoms can be managed.