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Eating well for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Dr. Alexandra Phelan: General Practictioner | minute read
Aerial view of a woman using a food processor, with food on chopping board and counter.

What is IBS and what causes it?

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a digestive condition that causes unpleasant, uncomfortable symptoms. IBS is thought to affect between 10-20% of the UK population according to UK healthcare research body NICE. Although there isn’t one specific cause, IBS has been linked to a family history of the condition, food passing through the digestive system too quickly or too slowly, stress, and oversensitive nerves in the gut. You might find times where symptoms are worse. The NHS refers to these episodes as IBS ‘flare-ups’ and notes that they can be triggered by food and drink. While there isn’t a cure and it’s thought to be a lifelong condition, there are ways it can be managed that have been found to relieve symptoms.

In this article, we explore what the symptoms of IBS are, how our diet can impact the symptoms of IBS, and what changes we can make to help keep the symptoms of IBS under control.

What are the symptoms of IBS?

IBS symptoms can differ from person to person, although there are common symptoms you might experience. These include:

  • Cramping and stomach pain after eating -this can often feel better after opening your bowels

  • A bloated, swollen tummy that feels overly full and uncomfortable

  • Diarrhoea that comes on suddenly after eating

  • Constipation that makes it difficult to empty your bowels - you might find yourself straining when you go to the toilet or still feeling like you need to go

Other symptoms of IBS can include:

  • Mucus-like discharge from your bottom

  • Feeling unusually tired

  • Excess wind

  • Feeling sick

  • Backache

  • Needing to wee more

You may notice that the symptoms you have can change depending on whether you’re experiencing a flare-up at the time.

Diagnosing IBS

Your GP will talk to you about the symptoms you’re having. Consider making a note of these, along with what foods you’ve had on the day of your symptoms as this can help the doctor make an accurate assessment. They might also run tests to rule out other conditions that have similar symptoms such as coeliac disease or a type of inflammatory bowel disease. Although there isn’t a specific test for IBS, your GP will talk through options with you if they think this is what’s causing your symptoms. You can also find resources and support on the IBS Network website.

How does diet influence IBS?

Although there isn’t a definitive cause of IBS, medical professionals widely recognise that certain dietary habits can ease symptoms or make them worse. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all diet for people with IBS, but there are small changes you can try to see if they help your symptoms.

  • Aim to have three regular meals each day, not eating too late at night

  • Use fresh ingredients where possible, limiting heavily processed foods like ready meals, tinned vegetables, and ready-to-eat meat products like sausage rolls

  • Try a daily probiotic for one month to see if it helps your symptoms

  • Don’t have more than 3 portions of fresh fruit (80g) each day

  • Stay hydrated - opt for water, cordial/squash, or herbal tea

  • Limit caffeine – stick to less than 3 cups of tea or coffee

  • Don’t exceed the recommended maximum alcohol units each week and aim for 2-3 alcohol-free days

The NHS offers dietary advice to relieve specific symptoms such as bloating, cramps, diarrhoea, and constipation. You can also speak to a pharmacist who can recommend over-the-counter and pharmacy medicines to help with these symptoms. Well known brands such as Buscopan can treat cramps and bloating for example, and Imodium can provide effective relief from diarrhoea. If you’re constipated, the pharmacist might recommend a high-fibre supplement like Fybogel or a laxative such as Dulcolax.

What other lifestyle changes can help to manage IBS?

The NHS recommends regular exercise and relaxation to help manage the symptoms of IBS. It can be helpful to make notes on anything you notice when you have a flare-up. This way you can identify possible triggers.

Finding a routine that works for you can take time. The IBS Network offers guidance and support, including local groups where you can meet others living with IBS. If you have concerns about any of your symptoms or find that you’re suddenly losing a lot of weight, or have blood in your poo, contact your GP.