How to tackle IBS and stop it ruling your life

Six steps from a nutritionist on how to take control of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and soothe a sensitive gut.

Gurgling, pain, wind, grumbly stomach, alternating constipation and diarrhoea – Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is certainly not a fun condition to have to deal with. And that is even before you get to the associated symptoms, which can include lethargy, nausea, backache, bladder issues, anxiety, and depression.

Every year around 10% of the UK population will suffer with symptoms of IBS, and this percentage tends to increase the older we get. It’s an incredibly debilitating condition and can truly hinder our lives.

This month is IBS Awareness Month and registered nutritional therapist Alex Allan explains what IBS is and outlines six easy steps to help prevent it ruling your life.

A woman clutching her stomach with a computer generated red patch on her belly to show the pain she is inCredit: Shutterstock / Emily Frost
Irritable Bowel Syndrome can cause pain and discomfort

Six ways to calm Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Expert advice on how to get your gut under control

There are many diet and lifestyle changes we can make to help with IBS symptoms – or just to improve our digestive health in general. As a nutritionist specialising in gut and hormone health, here are my six tops tips to get your gut under control:

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1. Mindful eating

Taking time to eat is something that few of us do. How many of us have finished our meals before we even realised we started? Or we are too busy watching the telly to notice how much we’ve eaten?

Firstly, sitting at the table helps to put us in the right position for comfortable digestion.

Secondly, eating slowly and mindfully, and chewing so much that if you were to spit it out you couldn’t recognise it, allows the food to be properly broken down before it hits our stomach. Plus, the movement of chewing and the time taken allows our body to prepare properly for the incoming food by generating digestive juices.

2. Three meals a day and a 12-hour overnight fast

Unless your GP has specified otherwise, moving to three decent meals a day, and avoiding snacking, can be the recipe our guts will love. Our microbiome, the collection of bacteria in our large intestine, is a little bit like a lawn – we don’t want to walk over it too frequently for it to grow right. Allowing decent gaps between our meals allows our gut to properly digest, absorb, and then clear the waste from meals we eat before embarking on the next one.

This will also allow us to have a good 12-hour overnight fast, where our gut will have the chance to do the repair work it needs.

3. Avoid sugar and processed foods

Avoiding high levels of sugar and processed foods, and sticking to a healthy, whole foods diet can be one of the best things you can do to improve your gut health.

Our microbiome relies on the foods we eat, and high levels of sugar and processed foods can cause changes that increase inflammation, pain, and bloating. Whereas a whole foods diet full of fibre, rainbow-coloured fruits, veg and plant foods can encourage the growth of friendly bacteria, improving our symptoms.

Food exclusion should only be done under the guidance of a qualified professional. While the FODMAP diet (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) can be helpful in reducing symptoms, long-term use is not recommended as it can lead to nutrient deficiencies.

4. Increase hydration

Many of us find it tricky to remember to drink water, or we fill up on tea and coffee instead. However, lack of hydration can be a primary trigger for digestive symptoms such as constipation.

Making sure we aim for 1.5-2 litres of water a day, drunk in small amounts across the course of the day, can ensure that our gut continues to function correctly.

Do try, however, not to drink too much at mealtimes as this can dilute our digestive juices impairing our digestion.

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5. Increase probiotic foods

Probiotic foods are having a moment, so you may have already tried – and loved – them. Think live yoghurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha. These are all foods that contain live bacteria, and research shows that fermented foods such as these can bolster the gut microbiome, improving the mix of bacteria and strengthening the gut lining.

6. Reduce stress

We cannot talk about IBS without looking at the gut-brain axis. There is a two-way connection between our gut and our brain, which is why we get butterflies in our tummy when we feel nervous, and while we feel low mood when our stomach is upset. Working on stress reduction has been shown to help improve symptoms of IBS.

Meditation, yoga, hypnotherapy, and breathwork have all been shown to have beneficial results.

See how many of these steps you can put into practice for optimal gut health. And don’t forget to get in touch with your GP or nutritionist if you’d like to investigate further.

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

How is IBS diagnosed?

IBS stands for ‘Irritable Bowel Syndrome’ and it is defined as a ‘chronic, relapsing and lifelong disorder’.

It is largely a diagnosis of exclusion, which means it is often diagnosed when other more serious conditions have been ruled out. If you have symptoms, it is essential to be checked by your GP to make sure it isn’t anything more sinister – particularly if there is unintentional or unexplained weight loss, rectal bleeding, a family history of bowel or ovarian cancer, or, for the over 60s, a change in bowel habit.

Your GP will need to rule out coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel disease, plus screen for cancer in older patients.

Why do we get IBS?

The different triggers for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

But why do we get IBS? As a syndrome it’s really an umbrella name for a variety of different digestive disruptions, such as:

Poor digestion

The right amount of stomach acid is needed to break down proteins, as well as for the absorption of minerals, such as iron or zinc. Enzymes helps us to break down fats, carbohydrates and proteins allowing them to be properly absorbed. So, any issues with stomach acid or enzyme production can cause symptoms. If our digestion is impaired for any reason, it can lead to bloating, wind, diarrhoea or feeling full when we’ve not actually eaten that much.

Food sensitivities or intolerances

These are different from true food allergies which are life-threatening and can cause anaphylaxis. Food intolerances, such as lactose intolerance, are where we don’t produce enough of the correct enzyme to break down a type of food, which can lead to upset stomachs and inflammation.

Food sensitivities are thought to be caused by an immune response generating symptoms such as stomach pain and irritation, joint pain, fatigue, and rashes.

Small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)

Normally very few bacteria live in the small intestine, so an overgrowth here can alter the shape and function of it. It can interfere with digestion of food and absorption of nutrients.

SIBO is often characterised by bloating and distension, diarrhoea and/or constipation, belching, and nutrient deficiencies.

Microbiome disruption or dysbiosis

Dysbiosis is an imbalance of the numbers of beneficial (‘good’) and pathogenic (‘bad’) bacteria in the large intestine which may cause discomfort, bloating and constipation and/or diarrhoea. This is becoming more common due to overuse of antibiotics, stress, alcohol, and high sugar diets.

Professional advice can make a difference

Get qualified help and advice

Working with a qualified health practitioner, such as a registered nutritional therapist, can help you get to the root cause of your digestive discomfort. Fully trained practitioners can organise testing such as:

  • Food intolerance and sensitivity testing – elimination diets are considered the gold standard when it comes to food intolerance testing.
  • Comprehensive stool analysis for dysbiosis, candida or pancreatic enzyme sufficiency.
  • Breath test for SIBO.
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Written by Alex Allan she/her

Published:

Alex Allan is a Registered Nutritional Therapist, Certified NLP Practitioner and Certified Health Coach.

With more than 20 years experience, her nutritional advice has been featured on Channel 4, national newspapers and magazines.