The month of April is dedicated to creating awareness about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common disorder that affects around 15 % of the population in the United States.

IBS is a chronic, often debilitating, gastrointestinal (GI) disorder characterized by frequent stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhea and constipation that goes on for a long period.

Although common, many people remain undiagnosed and are unaware that their symptoms indicate the disorder.

Common symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome

The symptoms and severity of IBS vary between individuals. Symptoms include sharp pain, cramping, bloating, distention, fullness or even a burning sensation in the abdomen, which may be triggered by certain foods, after a meal or while undergoing emotional stress.

Some people suffer constipation or diarrhea, or sometimes both. Other indicators are mucus in stool, excessive flatulence, the feeling of urgency and incomplete bowel movements.

Certain symptoms not related to the intestine such as headaches, sleep disturbances, anxiety, fibromyalgia and chronic pelvic pain also may indicate IBS.

Here are some interesting facts about IBS:

  • IBS is unpredictable as the same person may sometimes have contradictory symptoms.
  • The exact cause of the disease is not known. Medics believe it is caused due to the disturbance in the way the gut, brain and nervous system interact.
  • IBS seems to affect women twice as often as men.
  • Most people with IBS develop their first symptoms before the age of 40.
  • Stress does not cause IBS. However, it can worsen or trigger symptoms.
  • No specific therapy works for everyone. Treatment mostly includes lifestyle changes like exercising and quitting smoking and dietary changes like cutting caffeine and increasing fiber in the diet.

Foods to avoid

1. Highly processed food: Highly processed food contains a high concentration of fat, sugar and salt, which can cause flare-ups in IBS patients. Food items like chips, deep-fried snacks, processed meat and premade frozen meals must be avoided.

2. Carbonated drinks: The fizz in carbonated beverages like soda can affect the gastrointestinal tract and trigger symptoms of IBS. Switching carbonated drinks with water and lactose-free milk is recommended.

3. Dairy: Many people with IBS feel their symptoms worsen while using milk and other products that contain lactose, like cheese and ice cream. Using plant and soya-based alternatives may help relieve symptoms. While cutting down on dairy, including greens beans, nuts and seeds in the diet will help maintain calcium levels in the body.

4. Alcohol: It can trigger symptoms of IBS because of several reasons. Alcohol in general, can affect digestion, and dehydration from drinking can further worsen it. The presence of high amounts of sugar and gluten also makes alcoholic drinks bad for people with IBS.

5. Sugar-free sweeteners: Sugar-free alternatives such as artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohol are generally hard for the body to absorb, especially for people with IBS. They can trigger gas and digestive discomfort and cause laxative effects.

6. Cruciferous vegetables: Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and brussels sprouts are difficult for the body to digest causing gas, and sometimes constipation. Cooking these vegetables makes them easier to digest.

Foods to eat:

IBS patients are recommended to follow a low FODMAP diet and include food items that are low in certain types of carbohydrates. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols.

The recommended food items include fish and other meats, eggs, butter, oils, hard cheeses, lactose-free dairy products, certain fruits like bananas, blueberries, grapes and vegetables like carrots, celery and green beans.

Woman in pain