Irritable Bowel Syndrome: The IBS symptoms and remedies you need to know about

If you often feel bloated, get stomach pains, diarrhoea or constipation you could have Irritable Bowel Syndrome...

Did you know that Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can affect up to one in five people at some point in their lives? Symptoms can range from a regularly gurgling stomach to severe abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, constipation and bloating.

Doctors don't know why some people have IBS, but most believe that it's caused by a modern, stressful lifestyle, food intolerance, nervous disorders and possibly hormones. It usually first develops when a person is between 20 and 30 years of age, and around twice as many women are affected as men.

What is IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is when your intestines don't function properly and have trouble passing food from the stomach through the intestines to the bowel.

The intestines are a big muscle that contracts and relaxes to move food from your stomach through your intestines to your bowel. Normally, the intestines contract and relax in a coordinated rhythm. But if you have IBS these contractions don't work as well and food can be forced through your intestines more quickly, causing wind, bloating and diarrhoea. Or in some cases the opposite happens and food passes through very slowly and you get cramps and feel constipated (opens in new tab).

How do I know if I've got IBS?

IBS has lots of different symptoms, the most common are:

  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhoea
  • Feeling sick after eating
  • Passing wind
  • Feeling the urge to go the loo or passing stools very often
  • Stomach and abdominal cramps
  • Feeling that you have not fully emptied your bowels after going to the toilet

What are the causes of IBS?

No-one knows what causes irritable bowel syndrome but there's lots of evidence to suggest that stress, certain foods and hormones can play a part.

Should I see my doctor if I think I have IBS?

If you ever have any bowel or stomach problems go and see your doctor, especially if you get symptoms on a regular basis. Just a few years ago there wasn't much that could be done about IBS, but now there's lots of help and medication.

How is IBS treated?

Doctors have many ways to treat IBS depending on the symptoms and the medical history of the individual. Treatment ranges from prescription medication for the most severe problems to over-the-counter remedies.

Sometimes your GP might refer you to a gut specialist or recommend a course of stress management; sometimes anti-depressants are prescribed too. In all cases doctors will urge you to adjust your diet and lifestyle to help address the symptoms.

Natural ways to control IBS symptoms

1) Try a low FODMAP diet

Trying a diet that eradicates the foods known to cause flare ups for IBS sufferers is a good long-term plan to get symptoms under control. The Low Fodmap diet (opens in new tab) was designed especially for IBS sufferers, although it can also be followed as part of a healthy lifestyle too.

FODMAP stands for 'fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols' which are all types of carbohydrates that aren't easily broken down and absorbed by the gut.

The list of FODMAP foods is vast – it includes a variety of fruits and vegetables as well as dairy and wheat – and those with IBS can be affected by different foods and to varying degrees.

While one person might be able to tolerate garlic, a high-FODMAP food, another might be very sensitive to it. That’s where the low FODMAP diet comes in, as it teaches you what your trigger foods are – that is, the foods that give you IBS symptoms.

The low FODMAP diet requires you to eliminate indigestible FODMAP foods, then slowly re-introduce them. Those with IBS who have re-introduced different foods to varying degrees of success then try to eat a low-FODMAP diet, avoiding as many of their personal ‘trigger foods’ as possible.

But you don't have to worry, it's not a restrictive diet and in fact, there are loads of FODMAP recipe ideas (opens in new tab) out there to help you keep on target and offer tips on beating IBS through food.

IBS foods to avoid:

There are certain foods that can trigger the symptoms of IBS, so take a look at the list below for the items to try cutting down or out of your diet.

  • Reduce the amount of alcohol and fizzy drinks
  • Reduce the amount of tea and coffee
  • Reduce high fat dairy foods
  • Reduce your intake of fatty meat
  • Limit fresh fruit to three portions a day
  • Avoid hot chilli
  • Avoid sorbitol (the artificial sweetener found in sugar-free sweets and chewing gum)

2) Keep a food (and drink) diary

It can be useful to keep a food and symptom diary to identify triggers, as they’re different for everyone. Tracking what you eat and when can help you to see what could be a trigger – whether that’s a type of food or eating late at night, for example. For example, caffeine is a common trigger, so keep a note and try cutting things out one at a time to see if it makes a difference. IBS is specific to the individual, and it’s easy to forget what you’ve eaten across a whole day.

3) Watch out for onion and garlic

IBS tips

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These two plants from the same family – aliums – are often a troublesome food for those with IBS. Try using garlic-infused cooking oil instead of solid garlic. You could also fry o onions in oil, then drain away the solid pieces.

4) Drink some peppermint tea

"Peppermint has antispasmodic effects in the gut," says nutritionist Paula Werrett (opens in new tab). "Peppermint capsules have also been shown in research to be very helpful in many cases."

5) Reduce your caffeine intake

IBS tips

Credit: Alamy

Bad news – caffeine can cause upset to your gut, especially in excessive amounts. "Caffeine is recognised as a psychoactive drug but is widely consumed. Natural sources of dietary caffeine include coffee, tea and chocolate,"  Camilla Gray, (opens in new tab) Nutritional Therapist at OptiBac Probiotics (opens in new tab).

6) Limit booze

IBS tips

Credit: Alamy

"Like caffeine, alcohol is also a diuretic, which can encourage urine production, and so there’s a risk of dehydration. It also slows down peristalsis (muscle movements that move food along the gut). Both can cause constipation," Camilla warns.

7) Try fibre

If you have IBS then it might be because of a diet low in fibre (opens in new tab). So it's important to get to know which foods contain soluble fibre (the type your body can digest).

"If you have IBS-C (constipation) then you may find that upping your intake of fibre-rich foods (opens in new tab), such as carrots, green beans, courgettes, sweet potatoes, berries, bananas and grapes can add bulk without increasing the problematic FODMAPs," says Paula.

Other high fibre foods include (opens in new tab):

  • Oats
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Fruit – such as bananas and apples
  • Root vegetables – such as carrots and potatoes
  • Golden linseeds

8) Be wary of wheat

"Wheat-based foods are often problematic for IBS sufferers because wheat contains a type of sugar called fructan, which is difficult for many to break down and can cause symptoms associated with wheat intolerance," says Paula.

9) Get moving

Of course, we all know how important exercise is for us to look and feel healthier, but this can also have a huge impact for people suffering with IBS symptoms. Many people find that exercise helps, so aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as cycling or fast walking, every week.

"Exercise can be particularly helpful with constipation, as it can decrease the amount of time food takes to pass though the large intestine. Even just 10-15 minutes a day can be of benefit, so try going for a walk (opens in new tab) on your lunch break," advises Camilla.

10) Work on de-stressing

Stress (opens in new tab) is a cause for many sufferers of IBS. Try to set aside a few minutes each to day to relax and never eat when you're stressed, as this could make your symptoms worse.

"IBS may be exacerbated by stress, as the stress hormone cortisol can alter the secretion of acid, enzymes and bile needed to digest food, while affecting the transit time of food through the gut," says Paula.

After you've recognised the signs and symptoms of stress, treat it is the next step. Try some relaxation techniques (opens in new tab) like mediation or yoga, go for a long walk or try listening to some calm podcasts.

Credit: Getty

11.Consider your gut bacteria

Supplements Take a probiotic and a prebiotic supplement - you can get them from health food shops and chemists. These are the good bacteria that your digestive system needs and the enzymes your gut bacteria needs to thrive.

"Probiotics (opens in new tab) have been shown to significantly reduce the symptoms and severity of IBS. However, not all probiotics work in the same way. Pick a probiotic with strains that have been shown to aid the symptoms for the type of IBS you have," says Camilla.

Three good strains for IBS are:

  • Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12 for IBS-C. It has recently been featured in one of the largest clinical trials on probiotics for bowel regularity.
  • Saccharomyces boulardii for IBS-D. This unique probiotic is best known for its ability to relieve the symptoms of diarrhoea.
  • Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM® for IBS-A. The world’s most clinically researched strain of acidophilus. It’s been shown to reduce pain and bloating in IBS sufferers.

Try these IBS- friendly products

  • Bay’s Kitchen are made without onions or garlic and other IBS-trigger ingredients. Flavours include Tikka Masala and Sweet& Sour (£3.95 per jar, bayskitchen.com).
  • Schär has a great range of FODMAP-friendly gluten-free breads. Try the WholesomeSeeded Loaf (£2.50, Sainsbury’s).
  • Bio&Me is a ‘gut-loving’ granola, created by dieticianDr Megan Rossi (£3.99 per pack, Waitrose).

Having IBS can be a real struggle, but with these handy tips you should feel the symptoms start to ease

Senior Digital Writer

Amy is Senior Digital Writer across Woman & Home, GoodTo and Woman, writing about everything from celebrity news to health, fashion and beauty features. When she isn't obsessing over the latest dress drop from Marks & Spencer, you'll most likely find Amy out running, or with a cup of tea in hand ready to dive into a gripping new Netflix series.