Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

by: Maria Licoudis, R.N. & Care Manager

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common chronic gastrointestinal disorder that involves mostly the large intestine. It is caused by a miscommunication between the brain and the gut, as well as gut sensitivity and changes to the intestinal flora. Although IBS can be embarrassing and debilitating, it is not life threatening and usually does not lead to cancer. Some people can develop IBS in childhood, having what we all know as “a sensitive stomach”, while others may start in adulthood. Some may experience it during times of stress, or following an illness or infection, dietary changes or hormonal fluctuations. It occurs more in women than in men and can occur with diarrhea and/or constipation.

senior man buying groceries

In the elderly, IBS can be more challenging as they are often unable to deal with the frequency and urgency of bowel movements due to their decreased mobility. As well, they may become quickly dehydrated and week from frequent bowel movements and loss of fluids and electrolytes, coupled with already reduced water intake.

Some doctors and The Canadian Digestive Health Foundation, use a set of criteria called “Rome Criteria”, to assess the symptoms of IBS. The “Rome Criteria” refer to IBS as “symptoms for at least 3 days per month during the previous 3 months, symptoms first started at least 6 months ago, symptoms are improved with a bowel movement or associated with a change in stools, number or appearance.” If IBS is suspected, your doctor will need to see you, and most probably order blood tests to look at blood count, thyroid function, calcium levels, and sugar levels. As well, they will ask for a stool sample to look for infection, parasites or bacteria. Scans or ultrasounds of the gastrointestinal tract, colonoscopy and CT scan may also be needed.

For many people, diet and lifestyle are very helpful in controlling IBS, and providing symptomatic relief. Suggested strategies include:

  1. Identifying your trigger foods and eliminating them for 4-5 days to see if you feel better.
  2. Drinking 5-8 glasses of water a day, including herbal teas such as mint or chamomile.
  3. Avoiding carbonated beverages, as they increase gut bloating.
  4. Eating small meals more frequently. It is important to chew your food well, as small particles are better absorbed in the intestine.
  5. Including soluble fiber in your meals. Fiber solidifies the bowel movement, adds bulk and consistency, and regulates bowel movements. Use oat bran and psyllium. Be sure to drink a lot of water when taking fiber, to avoid getting packed and constipated. Soluble fiber foods also include oatmeal, barley, berries, oranges, peas, carrots. Avoid wheat, rye and barley.
  6. Avoiding dairy products, or use low fat or non fat dairy products. A lot of people with IBS are also lactose intolerant. These people can sometimes still enjoy yogurt, soy milk and cheeses.
  7. Avoiding fried foods. The heavy fat content can cause heartburn and diarrhea.
  8. Decreasing caffeinated drinks, as they stimulate the intestine and can cause diarrhea. No sodas, coffee, or energy drinks.
  9. Limiting beans, as they increase gas and bloating. However, if you have IBS with constipation, you may want to add beans to your diet.
  10. Consulting with your doctor or pharmacist as some medicines may aggravate IBS. These can include antibiotics, cough syrups, antidepressants, etc.
  11. Avoiding extreme temperature foods, such as ice cold drinks or very hot foods.
  12. Trying to avoid stressful situations, exercising daily, getting 8 hours of sleep, reading, listening to music, learning relaxation techniques, talking to someone and expressing yourself if stressed.
  13. Trying probiotics.

It is important to remember that not everyone experiences the same symptoms of IBS, or has the same triggers. With the elimination technique, your doctor’s help, and stress reduction, you should be able to figure out how to decrease flare ups. Your doctor will also be able to prescribe some medications, such as antidiarrheal, analgesics, and antispasmodics to help you during the crisis times. IBS is a very manageable condition!

Note: This article is for informative purposes only. Always check with a medical professional.


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