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Think You Have IBS? Here's What You Need to Know

Speaking up about GI symptoms can be uncomfortable—but it's the only way to find a treatment plan that works.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a digestive condition with many types of triggers, both mental and dietary, and affects how food moves through the intestines. Most individuals affected are under the age of 50, and symptoms usually appear between the ages of 20 and 30.

“IBS occurs when the nerves in your gut can’t handle the amount of gas and fluid that’s generated by the bacteria in your gut, and they become particularly sensitive,” explains Dr. Jamie Gregor, professor of medicine at Western University in London, Ont. This can result in abdominal pain, gas, bloating and changes in bowel patterns—such as constipation or diarrhea— among other gastrointestinal issues.

Yet, despite these debilitating symptoms, the five million Canadians who have IBS often suffer in silence. Only 40 percent seek medical treatment, often due to shame or embarrassment, says Gregor, adding that even after being diagnosed (which can take up to four years), many fail to pursue proper treatment because they’re uncomfortable discussing their bowel habits.

Luckily, doctors understand how IBS works and have developed a number of effective lifestyle changes and treatments that can help patients cope with this chronic disorder. First, make sure to visit your general practitioner for a firm diagnosis, but in the meantime, here are a few effective methods Dr. Gregor recommends to help alleviate IBS symptoms.

Embrace a healthy lifestyle

IBS sufferers tend to be perfectionists, which actually helps in a way because making a commitment to living a well-rounded and healthy life isn’t always easy. Getting enough sleep, drinking lots of water and skipping junk food are vital ways to keep your gastrointestinal tract happy.

Change what you feed your gut

One of the first lifestyle choices that Gregor recommends is a low FODMAP diet (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols—short-chain carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed by the small intestine). By eliminating certain high FODMAP carbs—such as dairy or wheat—people with IBS-D can reduce a high number of bad gut bacteria. “When you reduce the amount of these poorly-absorbed carbohydrates, you’re cutting off their food supply,” says Gregor.

Improve your gut microbiome

Your gut’s complex community of microbes and bacteria, also known as your microbiome, plays a large role in your entire body. This bacteria not only helps break down food, but also has an influence on your physical and emotional wellbeing. By altering this bacterial ecosystem, you can change how efficiently your food is being digested, which may result in reduced IBS symptoms, along with an improvement in your mood and health as a whole.

People with IBS tend to have a surplus of gas-producing bacteria in their microbiomes—which can be reduced. “You want to crowd out the gassier bacteria with non-gassy bacteria,” says Gregor. Besides following a low FODMAP diet, gas-inducing bacteria can be eliminated through a two-week course of antibiotics, which has lasting benefits for approximately three months. You can also regularly take OTC probiotics to recolonize your microbiome with good bacteria.

Improve the way you cope with stress

Cognitive behavioural therapy, which can retrain your brain to stay calm when confronted with stressful situations, can be very helpful in relation to IBS, says Gregor. It is done by a licensed psychologist or psychotherapist and involves attending a number of sessions—either in person or over video—and involves exposure exercises to confront fears and distorted thought patterns. Other calming practices such as yoga or meditation can also be helpful to alleviate stress-induced triggers. Finally, if recommended by your GP, there are also prescription medications that can help relax your nervous system.

Above all, it’s important to learn how to talk about IBS with your doctor. Don’t be shy about sharing your symptoms and discussing how they affect you. “IBS can severely affect a person’s quality of life,” says Gregor. But thankfully, there are strategies to help you take control of your symptoms. Above all, notes Gregor, “we are here to try and help.”