Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) generally refers to recurrent diarrhea and/or constipation. This common condition (also referred to as spastic or nervous colon) is often associated with bloating, excessive gas and abdominal pain.
IBS does not have one, distinct cause. Many patients complain of lifelong problems, while others note an onset in adulthood. Effects may follow a bad infection or heavy antibiotic use. Since symptoms vary, it’s likely that several factors play a role in the development of this condition.
An IBS diagnosis is usually made after a gastrointestinal workup fails to cement one specific cause of symptoms. Most patients can be diagnosed with good confidence based on their history. Patients suffering from weight loss, blood in stool, a family history of inflammatory bowel disease or colon cancer, or onset of IBS symptoms after the age 50, should consult a physician immediately.
To appropriately address IBS, factors such as diet, digestion, immune system and stress should be considered. Diet may be the most important factor, with highly processed foods typically aggravating IBS. High sugar, caffeine and artificial sweeteners also play a major role in chronic bowel symptoms.
Inadequate intake of fruits and vegetables will predispose the bowels to poor digestion and bloating. Any food that is not digested can be a trigger for IBS. The most frequent offenders are dairy (milk, cheese and foods containing casein) and gluten-containing grains (barley, rye, oats, wheat and spelt). The root cause is most often a true allergy or digestive intolerance. Symptoms from these foods can occur minutes to several hours after being ingested. Since these are common items, many people don’t realize that they are triggers until two to six hours later. Foods previously unproblematic may no longer be tolerated in adulthood.
On the next page, learn to identify food triggers by keeping a food diary.
Identifying Food Triggers
The wisest thing a patient suffering from IBS symptoms can do is keep a food diary. In it, have a column for foods and one for symptoms. Don’t document issues until prior to the next meal. Learn to avoid any potential food triggers by performing an elimination diet, pulling the foods in question from intake for two weeks. If the food is a trigger, bowel symptoms should lessen in about 10-12 days. At the end of two weeks, add the potential trigger back to the diet. If symptoms return, that food is a problem and should be avoided until symptoms have cleared.
Read labels and try to eat foods that are not processed. Avoid high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils. These ingredients can exceed the body’s natural digestive abilities. Target at least six servings of fresh fruits and vegetables daily. Drink plenty of water throughout the day, especially if constipation is an issue.
Stress can affect the bowels by limiting the body’s natural digestive output and affecting its overall function. Anxiety is known to aggravate IBS. Review the articles on stress reduction to minimize this contributor.
Supplements to consider with IBS:
- Probiotics are good bacteria that boost the immune system within the gastrointestinal tract, keeping bowel walls healthy. They should be considered for loose bowels or for patients with a history of frequent antibiotic use.
- Digestive enzymes can be taken at mealtime to assist the body’s breakdown of food. Clues of poor digestion due to insufficient production of enzymes by the body include excessive gas and loose bowels or bloating right after meals. Food that is not broken down can act as a source for potential bad bacteria in the bowels. Try one digestive enzyme capsule, with meals. If symptoms don’t completely resolve, try two capsules, with food. Digestive enzymes should not be taken by patients with stomach or bowel ulcers.
- Peppermint oil capsules are recommended for those suffering from pain and spasms. They work by relaxing the smooth muscle of the colon, usually the cause of this pain, and should be taken with meals.
Could these symptoms be from allergies?
Allergy testing is often negative in patients suffering from IBS. Despite these results, certain foods are clear triggers for people. The cause may be allergy related or simply intolerance. Current testing can confirm a case of celiac disease, a genetic inability to digest gluten, causing inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract and problems with absorption.
Can certain fruits or vegetables be trigger foods?
Absolutely. This further emphasizes the importance of keeping a food diary and practicing an elimination diet of all foods you suspect as IBS triggers.
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