Wouldn’t it be nice to just be able to enjoy a meal without worrying about the consequences of how it will affect your tummy? Will it cause gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea? Who knows? All the uncertainty might make you feel as though you are out of control and fighting this battle all alone. Well let me tell you something, you are not alone, as about 10-25 % of the world’s population struggle with the same problem. And this only includes the people that went out to receive medical help and can therefore be much more common.
What is IBS and how is it diagnosed?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a gastrointestinal tract disorder causing abdominal discomforts or pain, as well as changes in bowel movements. The cause of this disorder is not completely understood, but researchers believe that changes in your nervous system or your gut bacteria, genetics, and stress can play a role. The thing is, there are no tests that can be done to determine whether you have IBS, as the test will show no diagnostic abnormality. IBS is therefore diagnosed based on your symptoms. IBS is classified into different subgroups, depending on your symptoms. This includes IBS with constipation, meaning you have less than 3 hard and lumpy bowel movements a week. Then there is IBS with diarrhoea, meaning you have more than 3 watery stools a day. You can also experience diarrhoea and constipation, called mixed IBS, where you have a combination of loose watery stools and constipation over a few hours or days. Lastly, there is unsub-typed IBS, where you do not experience diarrhoea or constipation, and therefore do not fall under any of the other three groups. Knowing under what sub-group you fall can help with the treatment of your IBS.
Treating your IBS
Unfortunately, there is no cure for IBS, but there is a lot of research done on how to manage your symptoms. Treatment can include medications to help relieve the symptoms, changing your diet, and stress management strategies. Not all treatment strategies will work the same for everybody to relieve discomfort, and therefore it is important to get a management plan that works specifically for you.
Focusing on your diet
IBS is very individualized, and everyone experiences it differently. Therefore, food that normally will irritate your friend’s tummy, will not necessarily irritate your tummy, which is important to keep in mind when looking at your diet. Keeping a diary of what foods causes any tummy symptoms is the best way to adapt your diet to an IBS-friendly diet. Some foods that might especially irritate your gut include caffeine, alcohol, fatty rich foods, chocolate, refined carbohydrates such as white flour products, gluten, lactose, high quantities fructose, gas-forming foods such as beans, onions, and broccoli, and certain sweeteners such as sorbitol, maltitol, and xylitol. It is therefore important to take extra precautions when consuming these types of foods and note how your gut reacts to them. A registered dietitian will be able to help you to manage your IBS symptoms while still meeting your nutritional needs so that you can still have the best quality of life.
What about a low FODMAP diet?
One of the first terms that always pop up when talking about the nutrition therapy of IBS, is a low FODMAP diet. FODMAP is an acronym standing for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols, a mouthful of fancy words referring to short-chain carbohydrates poorly absorbed in the small intestine. These little carbs are then often the reason for the pain, bloating and you sprinting to the bathroom! There has been a lot of research on a low FODMAP diet in managing any IBS symptoms and found it to be quite effective. The goal of the low FODMAP diet is to figure out your tolerance to these different foods. To figure that out, you first need to eliminate all the FODMAP carbs from your diet for 6 weeks, and then slowly reintroduce them to your diet to see how these foods react in your body. Because it can be quite difficult to follow a low FODMAP diet, it is better to work closely with a dietitian with experience in IBS and FODMAPs.
A low FODMAP diet should however only be considered as a last resort after you have tried to change your eating habits and lifestyle. It is important to first ensure that you are eating a balanced diet that meets your fibre goals, drinking at least 8 glasses of water per day, eat smaller regular meals, and eating slowly and mindfully. It is also important to manage your stress, get enough sleep, and increasing your heart rate by doing your favourite exercises.
IBS does not have to rule your life. By focusing on what triggers your tummy problems and having knowledge on how to manage the symptoms, you can take control and still live your best life.