9 expert ways to beat IBS
1 Monitor your symptoms
Try to look for patterns in your diet. For example, you might find certain foods are fine some of the time, but cause IBS symptoms such as bloating when you’re stressed. There’s also a dose effect. You may be able to manage one tomato, but find two give you symptoms. You may not necessarily need to cut foods out entirely, but simply reduce how much you eat.
2 See your GP
There’s a lot your doctor can do to help. They can prescribe medicine to aid digestive symptoms, such as laxatives, anti-diarrhoeals and anti-spasmodics, and rule out illnesses such as coeliac disease (an autoimmune condition triggered by eating gluten) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), such as Crohn’s disease. Both of these can share symptoms with IBS, but have more long-term health effects.
If digestive problems have recently started for the first time, see your GP as, while rare, symptoms such as bloating and bleeding from the back passage can be signs of serious illnesses, such as cancer.
3 Choose white, not brown
Lots of people with digestive problems eat more fibre to try to help, but too much cereal
fibre can worsen digestive symptoms. If you tend to bloat or have a loose bowel, you should cut down, and, if you have severe irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), avoid cereal fibre altogether.
Steer clear of all breakfast cereals (apart from Rice Krispies, which are very low in fibre), brown bread, crispbreads, digestive biscuits, and anything made with wholemeal flour, including wholewheat pasta, oats, rye and cereal bars.
Counterintuitive as it may sound, opt for processed versions: white bread and pasta, anything made with white flour (like cakes and biscuits) and cream crackers. This dietary tweak eases symptoms by 30 to 40 per cent in about two-thirds of people with IBS. Try it strictly for three months to see if it helps.
4 Don’t go raw
We’re often told raw fruit and veg are healthy, but they can be hard to digest. If you experience bloating and other symptoms after eating foods such as salad, raw carrots and apples, try cooked or canned version instead.
5 Cut down fruit and veg
If your digestive symptoms are serious, try reducing fruit, veg, nuts
and seeds altogether as they are high in fibre. People worry cutting these
out is unhealthy, but you only need to do it for a short time, then reintroduce foods to see which affect you most.
Some people with IBS find an Atkins-style diet makes a big difference. If you find you can only control your symptoms with a very restricted diet, you would need to take medical advice as this may have detrimental effects on other areas of your health.
6 Try probiotics
These healthy bacteria are also useful, but there are many types – so you need to experiment to see which work for you. There are even different forms of acidophilus, which is one type of probiotic, so try different ones and see which are effective for you. You need to take a product for a month to know if it’s making a difference. If it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean other probiotics won’t help, so it’s worth trying a different one.
7 Tackle stress
Contrary to belief, stress doesn’t directly cause IBS and it isn’t any more strongly associated with digestive symptoms than it is with, say, skin conditions or migraines. But stress can contribute to IBS, so it’s important to take steps to tackle it. Yoga, meditation and tai chi can all be helpful. See our feature on stress, page 20, for more ways to help
8 Keep exercise moderate
While being active is important for gut motility and stress relief, vigorous exercise can be counterproductive, particularly if you are prone to diarrhoea, although it’s not clear why this is. Marathon-runners often have a loose gut! Instead, aim for moderate activity, such as walking.
9 Take laxatives if necessary
Some people have a naturally sluggish gut. If you are one of these, it’s likely that whatever diet and lifestyle changes you make, you will still be prone to constipation. It might be worth trying a small dose of a laxative, such as macrogol (from your pharmacist), on a regular basis for a while. If it helps, it would be reasonable to take long-term, as it is a myth that laxatives make your bowel lazy.