Reviewed by: Kavitha Kumbum, MD
Written by: Abbi Havens
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most common functional gastrointestinal disorder worldwide. So why aren’t we talking about it? We tend to shy away from discussing gastrointestinal symptoms, but if you’re suffering from IBS, you’re not alone.
People who suffer from a chronic illness often face stigma as a result of their condition, and IBS is no exception. In fact, because there is no definitive test to diagnose IBS, the stigma is intensified. You may encounter frustrating questions from friends and family who expect you to participate in activities that worsen your symptoms and the all-too-common phrase, “Just tough it out.” But your pain is real.
All that being said, IBS does not have to prevent you from living life to the fullest. By developing a healthy diet, exercising (the right way) and managing your stress and mental health, you can keep your IBS symptoms at bay and focus on the activities that bring you joy.
Fiber is Your Friend (To an Extent)
Constipation and diarrhea are two of the most common (and dreaded) side effects of irritable bowel syndrome. Fortunately, consuming the recommended dietary serving of fiber (22 to 34 grams of fiber per day for adults) may prevent constipation and diarrhea.
But don’t be fooled… not all fiber is created equal. Fiber is categorized into two groups: soluble fiber which attracts water and turns to gel during digestion and insoluble fiber which does not dissolve in water and adds bulk to food. Whether you experience constipation or diarrhea indicates which type of fiber will alleviate your symptoms and which type may worsen them.
Soluble fiber relieves diarrhea because it attracts excess water, thereby decreasing liquid in the stool. It can be found in fruits and vegetables including apples, oranges, strawberries, blueberries and peas. If your doctor has not recommended you avoid gluten, oats (which are gluten-free themselves but often contaminated with gluten), bran and barley are excellent sources of soluble fiber.
If you experience regular constipation as a result of IBS, focus your fiber efforts on insoluble fiber. Unlike soluble fiber, it does not dissolve in water. Instead, it adds bulk to your stool, making it easier to pass through the intestines. Insoluble fiber is found in vegetables and seeds including zucchini, broccoli, cabbage, leafy greens, flax seeds and chia seeds.
Avoid Trigger Foods
Just like fiber, the foods that may trigger your IBS symptoms depend on whether or not you experience constipation or diarrhea.
If you suffer from constipation, try to avoid:
- Processed foods like cookies, chips and processed baked goods
- Alcohol, coffee, carbonated and acidic beverages
- Dairy products
- Bread, cereal and pasta not made with whole grains
- Excess protein
If you suffer from diarrhea as a result of IBS steer clear of:
- An excess of insoluble fiber
- Alcohol and caffeinated beverages
- Fructose and sorbitol
- Dairy products
- Fried and fatty food
Celiac disease (gluten intolerance) is often associated with those who suffer from diarrhea as a result of IBS. If you regularly experience diarrhea, consult your doctor about consuming gluten. Additionally, it’s not all about what you put in your body. When and how frequently you consume meals may impact your IBS symptoms. To lessen the risk of diarrhea, consume smaller meals four to five times a day. To alleviate constipation, eat larger meals three times a day. For either situation, eat your meals at approximately the same time each day to promote regular bowel movement.
Managing IBS and a regular exercise routine can be tricky. Certain intense workouts are known to intensify the symptoms of IBS including runner’s diarrhea, painful stomach cramps and frequent bowel movement. However, exercise is known to greatly reduce the effects of stress on the body and regulate digestion. Because IBS is often linked to depression, anxiety and other psychological stress, maintaining a regular exercise routine is key to curbing the symptoms of IBS. It is entirely possible to exercise safely by taking a few precautions.
- Avoid intense, long-distance running. Instead, try swimming, power-walking, compound weight training, dance and yoga.
- Avoid eating two hours before or after your workout.
- Do not drink coffee, hot, carbonated or alcoholic beverages before exercising.
- Avoid fatty and gas-producing foods.
- Exercise at the same time each day.
Ultimately, identifying an exercise routine that relieves your IBS symptoms instead of aggravating them will be a process of trial and error. Listen to your body, don’t do something that isn’t right for you, and stick with it!
Living with IBS is a challenge, but it’s a challenge you can face head-on and emerge victorious. There is no IBS handbook. Experiment with foods, exercise and stress management techniques to find a routine that works for you so you can be an active participant in your own life.