Irritable bowel syndrome, commonly known as IBS is a very common gut disorder and is estimated to affect one in five Irish people. It affects both men and women and can occur in people of all ages. It is known as a functional gut disorder as no physical abnormalities are seen but changes in function occur. This results in symptoms which include abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence, belching, diarrhoea and constipation. IBS is broadly defined into two categories:
IBS-C in which constipation predominates
IBS-D in which diarrhoea predominates
However, a person can suffer from both diarrhoea and constipation.
It is not fully understood what causes IBS - it’s quite possibly a number of interrelated factors such as gut bacteria imbalances known as dysbiosis, genetics, diet, chronic stress- which all culminate to a person having a hypersensitive gut.
IBS is a condition that when you get a diagnosis, you can be left feeling a little lost. What next? While there are medications to help treat symptoms of IBS such as antispasmodics for spasms, there is no cure in the form of a pill. Luckily, IBS can be managed if treated correctly. Nutrition, lifestyle and supplementation can all play vital roles in IBS management. So what’s involved?
1) Identify possible dietary triggers
There are so many different foods and beverages that can cause IBS flare ups from commonly known trigger such as coffee, alcohol, spicy food, beans and dairy to less known culprits such as artificial sweeteners (yes protein bars we’re looking at you!), onions, garlic and avocado. The best way to identify triggers is through keeping a food and symptom diary for 3-5 days. Identifying triggers is only the first step - the next is seeing what personal tolerance levels are like, how much of the food can be kept in and to what extent it should be avoided. This process, especially when elimination of foods is involved, should always be done under the guidance of a qualified nutritionist to avoid any nutritional deficiencies.
2) Look at fibre intake
Intakes of fibre that are too high or too low can aggravate IBS symptoms such as bloating, constipation and diarrhoea. If intakes are low and constipation is an issue, fibre should be gradually increased alongside increased water intake.
3) Increase gut microbiota diversity
It’s becoming clearer and clearer that our gut microbiome plays a vital role in many processes in the body. Research suggests including as diverse a range of plant based foods as possibly every week is one of the best ways to ensure we have a diverse range of bacteria in our microbiome.
4) Stress management
IBS triggers are not only food based. Stress is also a well-known gut irritant that can contribute to an IBS flare up. Some degree of stress in our everyday lives has become unavoidable. Incorporating some “me-time” is an important tool to keep in our toolkit to help us deal with the stressors in our life. This could be meditation, journaling, yoga, a lie in, a walk in nature or a night in with a face mask - it’s completely up to you!
5) Look at how you eat
How you eat is JUST as important as what you’re eating. You have two nervous states. The first is sympathetic nervous state commonly known as fight or flight state - this is an inbuilt survival mechanism that helped us survive in prehistoric times. We’re in this state when we’re stressed and rushing around. While this state is great if you’re being hunted by an animal like in prehistoric times, it’s not so great for our digestion. Our digestion is effectively switched off with secretion of digestive juices and enzymes decreased and transit time is increased which can result in bloating, wind and diarrhoea. The second state is known as a parasympathetic state or rest and digest mode. This chill mode is key for optimal digestion. Looking at the environment we eat in is so important as it can influence which nervous state we’re in. We recommend taking the time to sit down and eat a meal without distractions like your phone or computer. Taking 3-5 deep belly breaths is the quickest way to get into rest and digest mode! Really taking the time to chew food into small components will also help as the food will be in a small enough form for our bodies to absorb and utilise. Changing the way in which you eat can make a huge difference to your overall digestion.