IBS, or Irritable Bowel Syndrome, is something I had never heard of until talking with some coworkers who have it; even then, I still didn’t know much of anything about it (aside from thinking “oh yeah, stomach trouble”) until being tested for and diagnosed with it. After plenty of research, it still doesn’t quite feel like I fully understand it, but I have found ways to live with it and work around it so it isn’t constantly interfering with my everyday life.
IBS is considered to be a “functional disorder”, but anyone with it will tell you it can be extremely difficult to function when dealing with IBS symptoms and flare ups. The classification is due to the fact that the symptoms of IBS are real, however lack an identifiable physiological cause.
IBS differs from IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) in all its forms, including the most well-known inflammatory bowel conditions: Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis. It differs in a good way, as IBS does not cause any actual damage to your bowel or intestines. Inflammatory bowel diseases, on the other hand, involve chronic inflammation of all or part of the digestive tract and can lead to stomach, esophageal and/or colon cancers. This isn’t to say that IBS isn’t serious or debilitating during flare ups, but it does not have the added bonus of putting you at additional risk for digestive tract/colon cancer(s).
In addition to stress and anxiety, there are other lifestyle factors completely removed from your eating habits that play a part in the severity of your IBS symptoms. With some lifestyle changes you can minimize your symptoms (note, however, this does not mean you will not require any medication or shouldn’t see your doctor. These are simply things your doctor will probably advise you to do anyway, in addition to taking any medication(s) they may prescribe).
There are numerous websites available with information about the symptoms and science behind IBS as well as lists of foods to eat or avoid, so I’m not going to delineate all of the same things here. While most of the IBS dedicated websites contain similar or overlapping information, where they tend to differ is in the lists of foods they advise people with IBS to eat. This is most likely because for the most part, everyone is a bit unique with IBS in what they can or cannot tolerate. The general consensus is about the same, though, in that you have to go on some form of an elimination diet for at least 2-4 weeks and then start trying 1 food at a time to see what will give you problems. This should be done while working with a dietitian or your doctor to ensure you’re getting the proper nutrients and whatnot, but for me I went 3 months with no dietary guidance from my doctors at all so it became necessary to figure it out for myself. The most important part of the elimination diet is keeping a journal of your symptoms, both physically and emotionally, to help determine what is causing them. You may think certain foods are problems when in actuality you were overly stressed/anxious and that is what caused a flare up. This, to me, was the most frustrating part; it always felt so unclear what was causing my symptoms, so how could I ever control them?
Enter the only real cohesive, complete “food plan” out there (online, anyway) for IBS; namely, the Low FODMAP diet, developed by Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. I really hate using the word diet – which inherently means you’re depriving yourself – so I call it the low FODMAP food plan instead. Rather than looking at it in terms of being deprived of certain foods, it’s more of “finally! A list of foods I really can eat!” What is so great about this plan is that it not only focuses on what foods you should or shouldn’t eat, but also specifies the limit on how much of each food should be consumed in any one serving. While the low FODMAP food plan is technically an elimination diet, it can also work as an overall food plan (along with any necessary nutritional supplements) for a healthy lifestyle and to avoid dealing with any potential trigger foods. Adhering very closely to this food plan should provide relief for almost everyone with IBS (though remember, keeping stress and anxiety levels in check remains essential in limiting flareups). I won’t go into it too much here, as all the information regarding this food plan is on the “The Low FODMAP Food Plan” page.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop at what you’re eating (and how much of it), as the severity and frequency of your IBS symptoms and flareups is just as much about how you’re eating as what you’re eating.
If you think you have IBS or are experiencing any kind of symptoms for IBS, IBD, Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis, my suggestion would be to get an appointment with your doctor ASAP. IBS is a diagnosis of exclusion, so they will need to perform numerous tests and it takes a while to get these done (they aren’t all done at the same time or place). Typically, they will perform a stomach ultrasound, blood work (including testing for Celiac), a breath test for lactose intolerance and possibly for malabsorption as well (such as fructose, lactose and/or sorbitol), colonoscopy and endoscopy. For women, they may even have you visit your gynecologist to make sure problems aren’t stemming from something in your reproductive organs. Surprisingly, I didn’t mind the colonoscopy/endoscopy! You get knocked out for it and since I had been sleeping poorly in the months after all my issues started and when my appointment was, it was nice to get some real sleep (even if it was due to drugs). 😉 Honestly, though, none of the tests are that bad and they have to be done in order to rule out something more serious going on. When you’re done, you’ll feel better knowing everything is good everywhere else and that you’re on your way to feeling better. Plus, with the low FODMAP plan and recipes on here and other websites, you should be able to manage your symptoms prior to the diagnosis so you don’t have to go for months in pain.
It’s important to note that while you may not be diagnosed with Celiac Disease or Lactose Intolerance, you may still have sensitivities to lactose and/or gluten. This is one way in which the low FODMAP food plan really excels above the other websites listing foods to eat/avoid with IBS, as it avoids these foods altogether (or at least keeps dairy products to a very small minimum, only being those with very low lactose levels).
Now that you have an idea of what IBS is (and isn’t), check out the other digestive health pages to learn about GERD/Acid Reflux and its relation to IBS, how to shop with dietary restrictions and just what the heck this Low FODMAP food plan is all about: The Word on GERD (& Acid Reflux/Heartburn), The IBS & GERD Connection, Low FODMAP Food Plan, Shopping w/Dietary Restrictions and What a Symptom-Free Day Looks Like.