The ABCs of IBS

Friday, February 18, 2011 | 0 comments »

By Omar Shamout

As many as 20 percent of Americans suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). While this painful condition technically just affects the digestive tract, its impact can reach far beyond simple discomfort, actually forcing people to change the way they live. IBS is a condition that's hard to diagnose, and because the frequency and intensity of IBS symptoms can fluctuate, many sufferers aren't even aware they have it. Fortunately, if you do suffer from IBS, changing the way you live can be easier than you think. It might even lead to a healthier and more active lifestyle overall.

What is IBS and how is it diagnosed?

IBS is a disorder of the intestines that's diagnosed more by what it isn't than by what it is. Although IBS shares symptoms with a variety of other conditions, including pain, bloating, cramping, diarrhea and/or constipation, the good news is that IBS doesn't worsen over time, nor does it contribute to more serious diseases of the digestive tract, like cancer or inflammatory bowel disease.

For sufferers of IBS, like so many types of diseases and disorders that result in chronic pain, just getting a proper diagnosis can be a huge hurdle. Many patients have described having had their symptoms dismissed as nothing to worry about. This is due in part to IBS being a condition that's functional, rather than structural, biochemical, or infectious. What this means is that it's difficult for doctors to identify IBS via a test, X-ray, or surgery in the same way they can identify an injury, inflammation, or infection. While this is problematic for diagnoses, it's good news in the sense that IBS is less serious than conditions such as Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, or inflammatory bowel disease, which cause physical damage to the body's organs. The only real way to diagnose IBS properly is by describing the symptoms to your doctor. According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common symptoms of IBS are:
  1. Abdominal pain or cramping
  2. Bloating
  3. Gas (flatulence)
  4. Diarrhea or constipation—sometimes alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea
  5. Mucus in the stool
These symptoms have to present for 12 weeks or more in order for a medical professional to make an accurate diagnosis of IBS. And if they don't, it's up to you to be an advocate for your own health care, and speak up if you feel something is wrong.

Trigger foods

IBS is a very personal problem. No two people have identical trigger foods that cause symptoms to start. While particular foods vary, the most common offenders are high-fat foods and insoluble (or high-residue) fiber. This means meat (especially red meat), dairy products, leafy green vegetables, fruit skins, whole wheat, and anything fried. Caffeine and carbonated drinks are also dangerous. Nicotine and alcohol wreak havoc on the digestive tract, so IBS sufferers should be wary of these, particularly in social situations. Unfortunately, insoluble fiber is a key component of a heart-healthy diet, so the trick is learning how to manage your intake. Luckily, many of the same techniques that aid digestion for IBS sufferers are also highly recommended methods to regulating your metabolism and keeping your blood sugar in check.

Digestion tips
  1. Eat small portions, often, throughout the day. This way, your digestive tract won't be overwhelmed. The emptier your stomach is, the less likely it is to get irritated.
  2. Start meals off with soluble fiber. This includes foods like rice, pasta, oatmeal, quinoa, potatoes, carrots, yams, beets, and barley. Soluble-fiber foods dissolve in water and are naturally easier to digest, because they pass through the system more quickly. This is especially important if you know you'll be eating a trigger food with your meal.
  3. Take your time while eating. Chew your food thoroughly and enjoy your meal. The faster you eat, the more air you swallow, which can cause bloating and could make symptoms worse.
  4. Drink plenty of water. Drinking lots of water is important for a variety of reasons, in addition to aiding digestion.
  5. Try veggie-based products to replace meat and dairy in your diet. If you've discovered that a certain type of meat triggers your IBS more than others, try switching to a vegetarian version of it. If your store doesn't carry a large enough variety of veggie-based products, you can seek out a specialty store to find some great-tasting veggie versions of your favorite foods. There's also a plentiful variety of veggie dairy products available, which should aid your digestion considerably.
  6. Supplements. Calcium is essential for strong bones, but it's also useful in preventing muscle contractions like those caused by IBS. Magnesium is also important because it can help to relax the colon. You can find both in Beachbody Core Cal-Mag supplements. Multivitamins like Beachbody ActiVit® can help maintain digestive regularity.
If you're looking for more information about what and how to eat when you have IBS, there are a variety of manuals and cookbooks available to provide you with tips and instructions at your local library, your neighborhood bookstore, or online.

Stress and IBS

Stress and anxiety play a huge role in the onset of IBS symptoms for a great many people. Dr. Rodger H. Murphree, author of Treating and Beating Anxiety and Depression, writes:
"Research suggests that IBS patients have extra-sensitive pain receptors in the gastrointestinal tract, which may be related to low levels of serotonin. Decreased levels of serotonin may help explain why people with IBS are likely to be anxious or depressed. Studies show that 54 to 94 percent of IBS patients meet the diagnostic criteria for depression, anxiety, or panic disorder."
The type of stress that contributes to IBS can increase with major life changes like starting college or starting a new job, so it's important for IBS sufferers to seek treatment from a counselor or other medical professional who can help identify and treat psychological factors that trigger your symptoms.

Stay active

Apart from the obvious benefit to heart health and general well-being, exercise is a great way to increase serotonin levels, and help prevent IBS attacks from occurring. Try to fit in 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day. Yoga and meditation classes are also proven ways to relieve stress, which helps alleviate IBS symptoms.

Other options

If you follow these guidelines and still experience symptoms of IBS, you may want to discuss medications with your physician. A variety of medications are prescribed for IBS; your doctor will be able to decide which, if any, is best for you.

There's no denying that IBS can be a real game-changer in anyone's life, but if you follow a few simple tips and guidelines, you can help keep your symptoms in check. Just ask questions, eat healthily, and take care of your physical and mental well-being, and you'll be able to deal with your condition without letting it control your life.