Irritable bowel syndrome: What you should know
What’s more uncomfortable than talking about irregular bowel movements? For the millions of sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), dealing with regular symptoms of irregularity—chronic diarrhea, bloating, constipation, and abdominal cramps—is far more uncomfortable.
Full disclosure of your symptoms is the first step towards a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
While these symptoms are not life-threatening, they can definitely have an impact on quality of life. So, what can you do if you’re experiencing symptoms of IBS? Nathan Landesman, DO, an osteopathic gastroenterologist from Grand Blanc, Michigan, pinpoints the signs of this condition and provides tips to help regulate your digestive health.
Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
Are your bowel movements normal or a sign of a serious health issue? “It depends,” says Dr. Landesman. “Occasional bowel discomfort such as constipation or diarrhea is normal, but when it’s constant and begins to become a part of your routine, it’s time to consult a physician.”
If you don’t currently have a physician, consider a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, or DO, who will look beyond symptoms to understand how lifestyle and environmental factors affect your wellbeing. Your DO will listen and partner with you to help you get healthy and stay well.
According to Dr. Landesman, even though there is not a test available that can definitively diagnose IBS, your doctor can conduct blood tests or examine your bowels with an X-ray or fibro-optic telescope (upper endoscopy and/ or colonoscopy) to rule out more serious diseases, or they may provide diet recommendations to rule out a food allergy or intolerance. To ensure a proper diagnosis, Dr. Landesman recommends telling your doctor if you experience common IBS symptoms, such as:
- Change in frequency and consistency of stool (chronic constipation or diarrhea, which typically occurs after eating)
- Belly discomfort or pain at least three days a week for several months
- Early feeling of fullness
- Weight loss
- Passage of mucus in the stool
- Feeling of incomplete bowel emptying
- Muscle pain
- Sleep disturbances
- Sexual dysfunction
“Make sure to have an open and ongoing dialogue with your physician about your symptoms,” advises Dr. Landesman. “Full disclosure of your symptoms is the first step towards a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. In addition, full work-up of symptoms is necessary to exclude treatable as well as cancerous processes that can masquerade as IBS.”
Managing symptoms of IBS
“The cause of IBS is unknown, but many people find their symptoms can be affected by their diet and also the amount of stress in their lives,” says Dr. Landesman. He recommends chronicling your symptoms in a diary so that your doctor can see how your symptoms change over time and relate to diet, stress, and other factors. To help manage symptoms, he suggests:
- Incorporating stress reduction techniques such as yoga into your schedule and learning how to relax, especially when your bowel is in spasm and you feel the sudden urge to go.
- Getting adequate sleep is extremely important as well.
- Avoiding caffeine, which can elevate the stress hormone cortisol, as well as cigarettes and alcohol is paramount.
- Limiting FODMAPs, which are a group of carbohydrates that have been known to trigger IBS symptoms. Foods in this group include:
- Lactose, found in milk products
- Fructose, found in higher levels in apples, pears, honey, and agave syrup
- Fructans, found in wheat, onion, and garlic
- Galacto-oligosaccharides, found in beans, lentils, and soybeans
- Polyols, found in cherries, apricots, apples, and sugar-free gum and mints
In regards to the low FODMAPs diet, Dr. Landesman recommends eliminating from your diet all foods that fall into this group for two to six weeks, then introducing one at a time to help identify which foods are triggering your symptoms. “Implementing some of these practices could go a long way in identifying trigger foods and managing your symptoms,” he says.