Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) affects nearly 1 in 10 adults. If you don’t have IBS yourself, chances are you know someone who does. You also probably know that IBS is not fun and hard to predict. IBS is different for each person and can include any or all of the following complaints: upset stomach, bloating, cramping, gas, abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhea. These symptoms may come and go, persist for days or weeks and bounce from one extreme to the other.
IBS is a condition that affects how the intestines function; therefore it is often referred to as a “functional GI disorder.” The muscles in the intestines may speed up or slow down, causing diarrhea or constipation. With IBS there no damage to the intestine as there is with ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease or celiac disease, and it does not lead to other life-threatening health problems. The gut-brain connection comes into play with IBS as well. Communication between the brain and gut isn’t clear, causing bloating, gas, cramping and sensitivity to food and stool. Scientists are still trying to determine what causes IBS, and there is no reliable way to diagnose it.
For all these reasons, many people with IBS are told “it’s all in your head.” Anyone with IBS will tell you it is all in their abdomen! IBS limits what, when and how you eat, so that corn you ate last week with no problem may now have you running for the bathroom. This disease is truly about regaining a control over one’s body and life.
The power of food, along with other lifestyle modifications, can make a big difference in how IBS affects you. Just as IBS varies, so does the foods that can heal it. Each person is different and responds to nutrition intervention differently. For this reason, I recommend working with a registered dietitian (RD) to create an individualized approach that will work for you. Your dietitian and provider will work together to rule out any other conditions that may be causing the symptoms you are experiencing.
The first step to harnessing the power of food is to keep a food journal. Record everything you eat and drink, including the portion size, brand, preparation method, time and location for at least a week. Take this one step further and include IBS symptoms and sleep habits, stressors and exercise. You may begin to notice some patterns and triggers that affect your IBS. This is a great place to start! The next step is to talk to your RD about what changes to your diet you should start with. Your RD may suggest changing how much or how often you eat, the types of foods you eat, limiting foods from certain foods groups, or increasing fiber. There are certain “diets” (for health, not weight loss) that can help as well. For example, the FODMAPs diet (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols) is gaining recognition as an effective treatment option. If you’d like to explore it I recommend working with a registered dietitian who has experience helping people use the FODMAPs diet to manage their IBS.
You do not have to suffer from IBS anymore! Use the power of food to find relief and live healthfully!
Emily Piazza, MS, RD, CD is a registered dietitian and the nutrition supervisor for the Community Health Team with the UVM Medical Center. She provides nutrition counseling and education for a variety of health concerns, including IBS and other gastrointestinal issues.