Synonymous with discomfort and frustration, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects a whopping one in five Australians. Although researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint direct causes, factors including changes in routine, emotional stress, infection and diet can trigger an attack. The key is not to become discouraged, and remember that dietary changes and stress management can provide significant relief.
Treating irritable bowel syndrome
Gradual changes to your diet and lifestyle, and identifying the crucial trigger factors, can make a world of difference. Try these:
• Switch to a high-fibre diet. This can be as simple as having cereal every morning. Although soluble fibre (in oats and green leafy vegies) is good, some insoluble fibres (present in nuts, seeds or legumes) can worsen symptoms. Make sure you complement the change by drinking enough water (ideally six to eight glasses per day).
• Keep a food diary. Lactose in dairy and processed foods is the most common dietary trigger, along with other sugars such as fructose and sorbitol. Track these with a food diary and experiment with eliminating them from your diet.
• Manage stress. Anxiety can affect the nerves of the bowel. Yoga, meditation or simple breathing exercises may help.
• Be mindful of medications. Some antibiotics, antacids and painkillers can lead to constipation or diarrhoea. Speak to your doctor about what drugs are suitable for you.
• Be kind to your insides. Eat smaller, more frequent meals. Taking in too much food can overstimulate your digestive system. And slow down: fast eaters often swallow too much air, which turns into painful intestinal wind. Cutting down on caffeine and alcohol can also reduce symptoms. The complex carbs in beer, and tannins in wine, can work against you.
• Get active. Being on the move can help by relaxing your bowels. Intestinal activity often settles during exercise, allowing better blood flow through your legs and arms. Exercise can also relieve stress, making pain and discomfort easier to cope with.
• Seek advice. A therapist can help you perceive and respond to everyday problems in new ways by encouraging you to seek out solutions that work. Combined with medication, it may be worth a try.