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Irritable Bowel Syndrome: 5 Ways to Take Control

Oct. 21, 2019

You may have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) if your digestive system is so temperamental you’re afraid to travel. Or perhaps frequent bloating, cramps and unpredictable bowel movements force you to stay close to a restroom.

IBS, often called spastic colon, is a common intestinal disorder that causes abdominal cramps, diarrhea, gas, bloating and constipation. Embarrassment causes many people with IBS to suffer, rather than seek treatment.

The root of the problem

“The condition occurs when the delicate interplay among the nerves, hormones and electrical activity that link the bowel and the brain is disrupted,” says Dr. Rashid Khan, a gastroenterologist at Houston Methodist.

If you’ve never before thought about the brain and stomach connection, imagine the butterflies you feel before making a speech, or the bellyache that might come on during a heated argument.

“In IBS, pain sensors in the colon are more sensitive than normal, causing them to respond strongly to stimuli that don’t affect most people,” Dr. Khan says. A breakfast of scrambled eggs and milk can spell disaster for those with the disorder, for example.

What you can do

1. See your doctor as soon as symptoms appear. Your doctor will know what treatment course is best for you. Since IBS signs may mimic those of a serious disease, your doctor must rule out any underlying disorder.

2. Identify the foods that bring on symptoms and discuss them with your doctor. Scale back your intake of the foods that trigger symptoms. Common culprits are dairy products, caffeine, beans, cabbage, fat and alcohol. Many nutrients you need may be in the foods you avoid, so be sure to make healthy substitutions.

3. Limit spicy foods.

4. Try eating a few small meals throughout the day instead of three large courses, since large meals often cause cramping and diarrhea.

5. Control tension levels. High stress levels can trigger IBS symptoms because of the brain-bowel connection. Go for a daily walk, talk with a friend, restart an old hobby or listen to music to unwind.

Antidiarrheals and laxatives may ease symptoms, but they are not long-term solutions. Your doctor may prescribe antispasmodics for relief. Antidepressant medication may soothe distress in severe cases.