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Living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome


Having irritable bowel syndrome is different for different people. If you're like some, it bothers you now and then; it's a minor inconvenience, but doesn't have much control over your life. If you're like others, you worry about going out in public at all because you never know when you're going to have an episode of cramping and diarrhea.

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a disorder of the large intestine. Symptoms tend to begin sometime from early adulthood to about age 40. They range from mild to severe, and can include
  • Cramping and pain in the lower abdomen
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Alternating diarrhea and constipation

    Some people experience symptoms nearly every day, while others have symptoms only every now and then.

    There's no known cause

    IBS, which has also been called spastic colon, is considered a "functional disorder." This means that the intestines seem fine in appearance, but the intestinal muscles contract for longer periods of time and with more force than in people who don't have IBS.

    So far, nobody has been able to identify why people develop IBS. They do know that certain foods can trigger it, and so can stress.

    Food and IBS

    If you have irritable bowel syndrome, figuring out which foods to eat can be a big challenge. If diarrhea is a common problem for you, avoiding fatty foods could help. High fiber foods can help control diarrhea and constipation, but they may also increase intestinal gas and cause cramping, so add fiber to your diet gradually. Additionally, some people find it helpful to eat smaller, more frequent meals instead of three larger meals per day.

    Some of the foods that commonly cause problems for people with IBS include:

  • Fatty foods, such as French fries (these may cause diarrhea)
  • Beans, cabbage and fruit may cause gas
  • Milk products, like cheese or ice cream
  • Chocolate
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Carbonated drinks

    Keeping a food diary can help you determine which foods bother your condition the most. Keep track of everything you eat (including tobacco, alcohol and caffeine), and note every symptom. Over time, a pattern may emerge that identifies foods to stick with and foods to stay away from.

    Exercise can help

    If you have irritable bowel syndrome, exercise may be one good way to get relief from your symptoms. Regular exercise helps normalize bowel function. It also helps relieve stress, which can aggravate IBS.

    The pain and cramping that comes with IBS can make it difficult to feel motivated to start an exercise routine. Begin slowly. Gradually exercise for longer periods of time. Ask your doctor or other healthcare provider for advice about the types of exercises that would be best for you.

    Take an active role in stress management

    The stress of IBS can escalate over time. It's stressful to have unpleasant episodes of cramping and diarrhea. In between episodes, you may feel anxiety as you wonder when your next episode will occur. It's important to do what you can to get this stress and anxiety under control. Consider trying one or a combination of the following:

  • Yoga, qigong or t'ai chi. These practices are relaxing and meditative. They can help you learn to live in the moment, which is a great way to help reduce stress.
  • Meditation or simple breathing exercises. These too, can help you to relax your mind and body and to look at life with a different, calmer perspective.
  • Counseling. An objective professional can listen to what's going on with you and offer suggestions about ways to get things under control.

    Medications for IBS

    Here are some medication options you may want to discuss with your doctor:

  • An over-the-counter fiber supplement if high-fiber foods cause cramping
  • An over-the-counter antidiarrheal drug if diarrhea is a problem for you
  • Prescription medications, such as tricyclic antidepressants, calcium channel blockers, somatostatin analogs and serotonergic antagonists, depending on your pattern of illness

    Living with IBS

    Having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can have a big impact on your life. If it's severe enough, it can affect your ability to go to work and participate fully in other aspects of your life. There can also be a sense of shame associated with the condition, because we live in a society where some people are reluctant even to use the word "bowel."

    If you know someone who has IBS, let that person know you understand how difficult it is. Your compassion will be appreciated. If you have IBS yourself, it may help to get involved with others who have the condition. Visit the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders ( You can find information about IBS, sign up to get a newsletter and stay aware of developments in the field.

    Certainly, if you have experienced the symptoms of IBS but haven't seen a doctor about them, make an appointment today. Studies show that about half the people who have IBS don't seek treatment. A doctor can diagnose your condition and then work with you to help you learn how to manage it so that you can live as normal a life as possible.

    International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders;
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