A brief guide to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

18 Feb 2015 Written by Kizzy Harris

Our Diabetes and Nutrition Service works closely with people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). IBS is a common, long-term condition of the digestive system. It can cause bouts of stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and/or constipation.

The symptoms vary between individuals and affect some people more severely than others. They tend to come and go in periods lasting a few days to a few months at a time, often during times of stress or after eating certain foods.

What causes IBS?

The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but most experts think that it’s related to increased sensitivity of the gut and problems digesting food.

These problems may mean that you are more sensitive to pain coming from your gut, and you may become constipated or have diarrhoea because your food passes through your gut either too slowly or too quickly.

Psychological factors such as stress may also play a part in IBS.

How is IBS treated?

There is no cure for IBS, but the symptoms can often be managed by making changes to your diet and lifestyle.

For example, it may help to:

  • Identify and avoid foods or drinks that trigger your symptoms.
  • Alter the amount of fibre in your diet.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Reduce your stress levels.

Medication is sometimes prescribed for people with IBS to treat the individual symptoms they experience.

How can patients self-manage their IBS?

The Association of UK Dietitians has some useful firstline advice which patients can trial before seeing a dietitian. Some people with IBS find this advice sufficient to help improve their quality of life.

However, if your or your loved one does not experience an improvement in symptoms, the next step would be to trial a low FODMAP diet.

A low FODMAP diet 

We use information provided by Kings College London who lead the field for a low FODMAP diet in the UK. A low FODMAP diet is a diet low in Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and Polyols. These are types of carbohydrates that are rapidly fermented in the gut. It is a relatively new dietary approach for the management of IBS and was pioneered in Melbourne, Australia. It has been researched for a number of years and been shown to be effective in treating gut symptoms such as bloating, wind, abdominal pain and an altered bowel habit. The diet involves restricting various foods including those grains, fruits and vegetables that are high in FODMAPs.

If you are interested in a trialling a Low FODMAP diet please contact your GP, who can refer you to our dieticians at Bristol Community Health. We require patients to have undergone specific blood tests and to have had a conclusive IBS diagnosis before undertaking this work so please contact your GP in the first instance.