Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Strategies for Managing a Complex Condition
Researchers have not yet come up with a coherent scientific explanation, let alone a cause, for irritable bowel syndrome and its debilitating symptoms. This means that there is no cure or even a comprehensive treatment. There are ways to manage symptoms, though.
A Common Diagnosis
Women are diagnosed with IBS more often than men. The main symptoms are abdominal pain, usually associated with bloating and gas, and a change in bowel movements—diarrhea, constipation, or alternating bouts of each. Mucus may be present with diarrhea, but there is no blood or pus.
Because tests show no abnormalities, IBS is usually diagnosed after other diseases have been ruled out.
IBS may be suspected when a person has recurrent abdominal pain with at least 2 of the following features:
- Pain is relieved after a bowel movement
- The onset of pain is associated with diarrhea or constipation
Since IBS primarily affects the GI tract, dietary changes are a good place to start. Many people benefit from avoiding certain foods and ingredients, such as:
- Fatty foods
- Gas-producing vegetables and legumes
For those who find a connection between their symptoms and what they eat, avoiding those foods can be helpful.
Depending on your age and gender, general guidelines recommend aiming for 25-38 grams of fiber in your daily diet. Fiber may improve the colon's function and reduce symptoms, especially in people who tend to be constipated. However, if your IBS symptoms are mainly gas and bloating, fiber may cause you to have more abdominal discomfort. Your doctor can help you select good sources of fiber based on your symptoms. Examples include:
- Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes
- Raw bran
If you want to increase the amount of fiber in your diet, add small amounts at a time. Adding too much fiber too quickly can lead to a flare-up of IBS symptoms.
Of the many herbs and supplements that have been recommended for IBS, peppermint oil is one of the few backed by some scientific evidence. The recommended dose is 0.2 milliliter (ml) capsules 3 times daily after meals. Be sure to take the enteric-coated form, so that the capsule will not be broken down in the stomach before it reaches the intestines. Talk to your doctor before taking any herbs and supplements. They could affect medicines that you are taking or conditions that you have.
Stress management may be able to ease IBS symptoms. Some treatments that may be used to decrease stress include:
- Relaxation response—This may include techniques like meditation, guided-imagery, and progressive relaxation.
- Biofeedback—Biofeedback involves being monitored with a machine that provides information about the body, like how tense the muscles are. The person can then use this information to take steps to reduce stress.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)—CBT can help people to address their thought patterns and behaviors and manage how they react to their condition and symptoms.
Participating in a regular exercise program can help improve bowel function and other IBS symptoms. If you would like to start exercising, check with your doctor to make sure you are healthy enough.
Anther important part of treatment is becoming educated about IBS and ways to reduce the symptoms. Joining a support group may also be a good way to learn about the condition and to share your experiences with others.
In addition to lifestyle changes, there are a number of medications that may be helpful in treating the individual symptoms of IBS. In some cases, these medications may be used in combination. Examples include:
- Antispasmodic agents
- Antidiarrheal agents
- Low-dose antidepressants
- Pain relievers
- Serotonin receptor agonists and antagonists (also called 5-HT3 antagonists)
These medications, while often helpful, are no substitute for a comprehensive lifestyle approach. By modifying your diet, managing stress, and making other healthy changes, you can work to address your IBS symptoms.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome Self Help and Support Group
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
The Canadian Association of Gastroenterology
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Peppermint. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/academic/natural-alternative-treatments. Updated August 2013. Accessed January 20, 2016.
Relaxation therapies. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/academic/natural-alternative-treatments. Updated July 2012. Accessed January 20, 2016.
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Last reviewed January 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 2/18/2014