ALTHOUGH it affects millions of us the exact cause of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is still unknown. 

And it still doesn’t have a cure, meaning sufferers have to control and manage their symptoms.

Dr Kate Stephens is a gut microbiologist at Optibac Probiotics.

She explains that IBS is a common condition that affects the digestive system with symptoms including bloating, stomach cramps, flatulence, diarrhoea, constipation, mood swings, nausea, bodily aches and pains and incontinence.

IBS symptoms can flare up due to certain dietary, lifestyle and environmental triggers.

However, Dr Stephens adds that studies have revealed IBS can be passed down genetically, meaning you’re more likely to develop IBS when you’re younger. 

“Moreover, research shows that sex hormones may play a role, explaining why IBS is more common in women than men.

“The diagnosis of IBS is given by a medical doctor once all other causes of symptoms have been ruled out.”

Symptoms of IBS can be debilitating, and for many, can wreak havoc on their day to day life. 

With April marking IBS Awareness Month, we asked the experts for some simple ways to prevent or reduce the severity of certain symptoms, so you, or someone you know who suffers from IBS, can live a happier, more comfortable life…

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1. Focus on HOW you eat to beat bloat

Chewing your food thoroughly sounds simple, but it’s something a lot of people forget! 

“Digestion starts in the mouth,” says Jo Cunningham, Clinical Director at The Gut Health Clinic, who recommends chewing each mouthful for a minimum of ten times, however closer to 30 is ‘optimal’.

“The act of chewing releases digestive enzymes that help your body digest food as well as send a signal to the stomach that food is on its way.”

She adds that relaxing when you eat and taking deep breaths, allows foods to be digested properly which can help prevent bloating. 

“It’s also said that you feel more satisfied with your meal if you take time to enjoy it. 

“The extra timing allows your brain to register that you’re full and signals to stop eating, hence helping to beat the bloat associated with overeating.

“Posture is also key; leaning over foods and watching TV may put your body in an awkward position which doesn’t promote a good digestive process.”

2. Limit fruit to avoid diarrhoea

This might go against every 5-a-day message that’s been drilled into our brains, however, eating fruit at meals could make IBS symptoms far worse. 

“For those with IBS, the recommendation is to aim for no more than one piece of fruit per sitting, with up to three sittings across the day. 

“Many fruits contain a type of sugar that can increase water being drawn into the bowel and contribute to symptoms such as needing to rush to the toilet, bloating and diarrhoea,” says Jo.

She also recommends limiting juices and smoothies, instead opting for whole fruit to give your gut microbes – the living bacteria in your gut – the maximum benefit of the plant fibres.

3. Harness the power of heat for cramps 

“If you experience IBS-induced abdominal pain, try applying heat as it helps relax muscles and quickly relieve pain,” suggests Dr Stephens.

She adds that if the IBS pain strikes when you’re in public, try a more discreet heat pack or a stick on heat patch.

4. Avoid fatty and spicy foods to reduce reflux

“You should avoid or limit chilli-containing meals and have fried or high fat foods only occasionally,” explains Jo.

“This includes chips, deep fried fish/meat, fatty meats like sausages, pastries, cream and large amounts of cheese.”

Instead, go for healthier choices such as oven baked or steamed oily fish, olive oil instead of butter and filling up on colourful foods like salads and vegetables.

5. Check your fibre intake for constipation

Most adults are falling short of fibre targets by a whopping 40% per day. 

In the UK, it’s recommended that adults consume 30g per day, however the average intake is just 18g.

Fibre doesn’t just come from fruit and vegetables, says Jo.

“Think about the ‘super six’ categories: legumes, wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds and herbs and spices. 

“Less fibre in our diet means we’re more likely to experience symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, abdominal discomfort, reflux and altered stools.”

To increase your fibre, Jo recommends looking at your current meal pattern and thinking about what fibre-filled foods you can add to this. 

Be sure to increase your fluid intake as your fibre intake rises, to help fibre pass through the digestive tract comfortably. 

Touching on laxatives, Dr Stephens says that while they are a common ‘quick fix’ for constipation, there are several side effects.

“Not only do they impact your gut microbiome and lower levels of friendly bacteria in the gut, but they could create a ‘whack a mole’ situation where although your constipation may be relieved, other side effects are bound to pop up.”

6. Drink peppermint tea for trapped wind

“As well as being calming and soothing, peppermint is well known for its ability to support digestive health. 

“If you experience trapped wind because of your IBS, I’d recommend opting for a peppermint tea,” says Dr Stephens. 

Peppermint oil has also been proven to aid with IBS symptoms.

7. Eat energy dense foods for fatigue 

“Studies have shown up to 60% of those with IBS suffer from fatigue, potentially due to food avoidances, worries over symptoms, and flare-ups at night impacting sleep,” says Dr Stephens.

This, in turn, can affect work life as sufferers of IBS may need to take more time off work and may experience reduced productivity levels when they are at work.

“Consider consuming energy-dense foods that work for you, like peanut butter, to help boost energy levels.”

8. Practice mindfulness for anxiety 

Dr Stephens explains that research suggests up to 94% of individuals with IBS suffer with mental health disorders including anxiety and depression.

She adds that this is likely due to the heavy impact IBS symptoms can have on someone’s quality of life, affecting relationships, social activities, work life, body image and food choices.

“It could also be due to the gut-brain axis. This is a complex pathway where our gut health can affect our mood and vice versa. 

“In IBS, the gut-brain axis can be out of balance due to inflammation and higher numbers of harmful bacteria.”

Meditation and breathing exercises can be useful additions to your daily routine. 

Try Box Breathing, which involves inhaling for a count of four, holding the breath for another count of four and then exhaling for a further count of four. Repeat for two to three minutes.

9. Choose yoga for trapped wind

Yoga has been proven to help with IBS symptoms (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4438173/) – not just primary symptoms such as trapped wind, but also secondary symptoms such as anxiety and stress.

“For IBS sufferers, I’d recommend the cat and cow positions as when alternated together, the motions can massage and support the whole digestive tract,” says Dr Stephens.

To practice the cat and cow positions, start on your hands and knees, with wrists directly under your shoulders and knees stacked under your hips. 

To move into the cow position, inhale, then push your stomach down towards the ground while lifting your chest and chin and looking upwards. 

Slowly move into cat pose by exhaling and rounding your back, so your stomach now draws up into your spine and your head moves to look down. 

Aim to repeat this movement about ten times. 

10. Go low FODMAP foods to reduce bloating and cramps

It’s a mouthful, but FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polysaccharides.

“These foods are certain types of carbohydrates which the body can struggle to digest. 

“How good your gut is at digesting these foods depends on digestive enzymes, transit times, gut health and how much of the food has been consumed,” explains Dr Stephens.

If FODMAP foods are poorly absorbed in the small intestine, they pass to the colon and are broken down by bacteria, creating gases contributing to bloating and pain. 

High FODMAP foods include include sweeteners (sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol), cow milk, yoghurt, apples, broccoli, garlic, wheat and rye whilst lower FODMAP foods include sweet potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, bananas, blueberries, kiwis, passionfruit, oats and rice. 

It’s recommended to seek the help of a dietitian before embarking on a FODMAP diet.

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