Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a functional gut disorder that affects the large intestine, also known as the colon. It is classified as a syndrome as it is a collection of symptoms, meaning it can manifest differently from one person to the next. Symptoms can include flatulence, bloating, distention, diarrhoea, constipation and stomach cramps. How it affects an individual can depend on which subtype they have been diagnosed with; IBS-C ie. constipation dominant, IBS-D ie. diarrhoea dominant, or the mixed subtype. Alteration in bowel patterns can vary for an individual, regardless of their diagnosis.
The cause is currently unknown, but a theory is that those with IBS have a hyper-sensitive gut. Factors affecting IBS trigger symptoms by influencing gut motility ie. speeding it up or slowing it down. These factors include stress, sleep, exercise, fibre/FODMAPs, caffeine alcohol and composition of microbes in the gut. There is no cure for IBS at present, so the aim for treatment is symptom management to improve quality of life. However, new emerging research on the connection between the gut and the brain – known as the gut-brain axis – has expanded treatment options available for individuals with IBS.
Inclusion vs exclusion – When we experience symptoms like bloating or a distended tummy, we tend to jump the gun by blaming a particular food and removing it to prevent reoccurrence. While this can be useful for the like of FODMAPs, the role of food intolerances in IBS is somewhat overstated. Myths continue to circulate online such as cutting out dairy or gluten, have played a role in demonizing certain foods or entire food groups. This restrictive mindset can do more harm than good, as an individual can develop a fear of foods as a result. This can trigger an emotional response in the body, which in turn, can further exacerbate symptoms.
Before you start restricting foods, take a look at what’s missing from your diet. Do you have a ‘balanced’ diet? Are you getting adequate amounts of fibre? Protein? Fats? Fruit & vegetables? Carbohydrates are an example of an entire food group that is often removed from the diet when cutting calories. By doing so, individuals are at risk of nutrient deficiencies, reducing the diversity of their gut microbiota and not consuming sufficient soluble fibre. The language used is also important, ensuring that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ views of food. Of course, there are foods that are less nutritious than others, but context is important. The value of food should not only be measured by the calorie content, but also by how it makes you feel. Is that bar of chocolate really all that bad if you enrich yourself in the experience while savouring the flavour?
FODMAPs – The Low FODMAP (Fermentable oligo-, di-, monosaccharides and polyols) diet has become somewhat ‘on trend’ lately not only for those with IBS but for individuals with general bloating. FODMAPs trigger symptoms as consumption can increase fluid in the gut, along with gas as they’re fermented by gut bacteria. The aim of the diet is to, under supervision, identify particular foods that can trigger symptoms, specific to that individual. The first phase involves restricting all FODMAPs, followed by the re-introductory phase. Unfortunately, it is common to see Instagram accounts sharing recipes of ‘FODMAP-free diets’, when this is not the purpose of the diet. While it may seem logical to remove all FODMAPs from the diet, this is not advisable due to their prebiotic nature and the potential risk for nutrient deficiencies. This approach has proven successful for symptom relief but should be done with the guidance of a trained nutrition professional.
Supporting digestion – Manipulating fibre is important for those with IBS as increasing soluble fibre can help prevent constipation while decreasing insoluble fibre can help prevent diarrhoea. How you eat is also important to ensure blood flow is directed towards the gut, and not away from it. Slow down your chewing and remember not to eat while stressed, emotional or on the go. There’s no need to down tablespoons of Apple Cider Vinegar, simply swap those ice-cold drinks with your meal for warmer ones. Herbs like ginger can support digestion, while mint can be beneficial for symptom relief. Ensure to avoid or reduce the consumption of stimulants such as caffeine, ‘detox teas’ and alcohol that can trigger stomach cramps. Ensure to also drink adequate water to prevent dehydration of the digestive tract.
Self-care – Stress management techniques, rest & unwinding are key to preventing flares in IBS. The latest research studies have shown Mindfulness-based stress reduction interventions such as yoga and meditation, to be as effective as traditional interventions. Taking time out to unwind from our busy lifestyles is so under-rated, yet so impactful. Deep breathing methods activate the parasympathetic nervous, which can both alleviate and prevent symptoms. Making time for adequate rest is important for IBS, as poor-quality sleep can have a negative impact. Learn from my mistakes and avoid getting caught up in the ‘team no days off’ mentality.
Minding your mind – Having IBS can affect an individual’s mental health as they struggle with things like body dysmorphia and shame around their condition. Prioritizing mental health by developing helpful coping strategies and seeking professional help when required, will enhance an individual’s quality of life. Developing skills like emotional resilience and learning about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can improve their ability to cope, therefore reducing the prevalence of flares.
Having IBS can be difficult to live with due to the multi-factorial nature of the condition. It used to hold me back as I felt embarrassed and ashamed of my body. By changing my mindset, I’ve discovered a new appreciation for my body. My sensitive gut tells me when I’m taking on too much, being too hard on myself or trying to burn the candle at both ends. A flare is a warning sign that I’m not looking after myself and that I need to slow down. I’ve tried multiple different diets, teas, lotions and potions, all with the aim to ‘fix’ myself. What I’ve discovered is that I was never actually broken, I just needed to understand my body that little bit more than the average person. I’ve learned to accept and love myself, even when I look 9 months pregnant or suffer with painful cramps. Self-love isn’t a quick or easy journey to embark on, but we are all worth the time and effort required. Show yourself some compassion, prioritize your health and tune in to your body.
About Orla Swan – @thehealthhun
My name is Orla Swan and I’m from Dublin, Ireland. I have B.Sc in Biotechnology and practice as a MacNutrition Certified Nutritionist. Back in 2018, I decided to set up this blog, not knowing where it would take me. I was in my final year of college trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I’m still not really sure what I’m doing, but I know what I want to achieve.
Having experienced my fair share of conditions and abnormal symptoms – IBS, PCOS, Anxiety, Depression and acne to name a few – I’ve thrown myself into learning as much as I can about health. I have discovered my passion for guiding others on a simplified journey to better health. There is so much misinformation out there that it can be difficult to sift through the BS – some of which is causing more harm than good.
My aim is to empower as many people as possible with the fundamentals to understanding the true meaning of health and wellness. Health is not just looking lean, toned or shredded. Health encompasses the mental just as much as the physical. Nutrition, sleep, physical movement, self-talk, body image, stress management, hydration – it’s all relevant.
Find Orla here –> https://thehealthhun.com/