Young women doing hip bridge in living room
Certain exercises, such as a bridge, can help strengthen your pelvic floor which can improve irritable bowel syndrome symptoms.

How to Treat IBS

Many people know the discomfort of an upset digestive system. It’s typical to attribute the symptoms to something we ate or perhaps a stomach bug. Digestive issues, especially frequent ones, can be the result of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

What is IBS?

Worldwide, IBS affects about 5% to 10% of people. This disorder is characterized by improper function of the bowel and symptoms of abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation or both.

IBS is a long-term condition, with symptoms that can change over time and range from mild to moderate to severe. There can be periods without flare-ups, but IBS can stop and restart throughout your lifetime. With IBS, there is no obvious inflammation or infection present and no medical tests around to confirm a diagnosis, so doctors have to rely on a process of elimination to determine if your symptoms are from another condition or the result of IBS.

IBS Causes

Researchers don’t know what causes IBS, but early indications suggest it could be the result of several conditions such as food allergies, poor eating patterns, stress (physical or emotional), medication, hormones, bile acid malabsorption, abnormalities in digestive muscles, or lack of physical exercise.

Treating IBS

Each patient has a different reaction to treatment options, so treatments are tailored to the individual. Communicate with your doctor to find the most effective treatment for you.

When it comes to how to treat IBS, these are the six most common methods:

1. Change Your Diet

Switching your eating pattern seems like the obvious decision when there are issues with digestion. The bowel responds to how and when a person eats. Eating regular, well-balanced meals will be better for your digestive tract than meals that are unhealthy and inconsistent.

Tracking your eating habits in a food diary can narrow down what affects your digestion and help you remove problematic foods from your diet. Here are a few quick tips:

  • Avoid foods that promote gas, like carbonated beverages, raw fruit and certain vegetables, like cabbage and broccoli. This may help with issues of bloating.
  • Cut out gluten (wheat, barley and rye). This may alleviate diarrhea symptoms.
  • Make sure you have enough fiber and liquids in your diet.

Some physicians recommend you try a low FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) diet. These are types of carbohydrates that are poorly digested by the body. This diet involves cutting out these carbohydrates for six to eight weeks to see if it has an effect on IBS symptoms.

If no symptoms are present, you can start reintroducing FODMAPs to your diet. The diet is quite complicated and restrictive, so loop your physician into the conversation before starting the diet on your own.

2. Medication

There are several options in the pharmacy that can help you relieve your symptoms and can be prescribed based on which IBS symptoms you have. Medications can come with side effects, so make sure you consult your doctor before taking medication for your IBS. Medications that can help include:

  • Over the counter medications like fiber supplements and laxatives to help with constipation.
  • Pain medications can be used to ease pain or bloating.
  • Anti-diarrheal medications are available to help control diarrhea.
  • Anticholinergic medications can be prescribed for those who have bouts of diarrhea to help relieve painful bowel spasms.
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3. Acupuncture

Acupuncture initiates a rest-and-digest response from the body. Research shows that acupuncture can improve IBS symptoms and enhance general well-being. Those with IBS note that pain and discomfort can be some of the symptoms and acupuncture provides pain relief. Acupuncture also assists in stimulating movement of the digestive tract.

On the well-being side, acupuncture reduces anxiety and distress by increasing serotonin and endorphin production. The release of these hormones is important since stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which can promote colon spasms and increase abdominal pain. Those with IBS have oversensitive colons that do not respond well to stressful encounters.

4. Physiotherapy

Focusing on developing stronger pelvic floor muscles may help those who have diarrhea-predominant symptoms, bowel urgency and watery stools. Physiotherapy is great for those with pelvic floor dysfunction or imbalances, strengthening these muscles help control defecation.

The goal of physiotherapy as an IBS treatment is to develop the ability to relax one’s pelvic floor completely and at the same time allow forward-pushing forces from the abdominal muscles to evacuate the bowel fully.

Some exercises your physiotherapist may advise you to do that will help strengthen your pelvic floor include:

  • Kegels: Tighten the muscles that stop urine flow and hold for three to five seconds, then release for a few seconds and repeat.
  • Squeeze and release: Quickly squeeze pelvic floor muscles, quickly release without sustaining the contraction and repeat.
  • Bridge: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on floor. Squeeze your buttocks and pelvic floor, lifting your buttocks off the ground. Hold for a few seconds and then lower buttocks to floor. Repeat.
  • Squats: Stand with feet hip-width apart. Bend at knees and bring buttocks toward the floor, keeping your back straight and eyes forward. When returning to standing position, focus on tightening the buttocks and pelvic floor. Repeat.

5. Probiotics

Probiotics are living microorganisms (bacteria and yeasts) that are good for the gut. They’re similar to microorganisms typically found in the digestive tract, and these good bacteria seem to be effective for improving gut dysfunction. Researchers are still studying the use of probiotics on IBS, but studies are positive.

Make sure your doctor advises you on how much probiotics you should take and for how long. There are some products, like yogurt, that have probiotics, but some of these products don’t contain the quantity needed or type of probiotic required to help with IBS. Other times, probiotics can be destroyed by stomach acid before they get to the colon, so make sure you do your research when selecting a probiotic.

6. Peppermint

Research shows that peppermint oil can be a safe, short-term treatment for IBS. Peppermint relaxes smooth muscles in the intestines which helps reduce symptoms and minimize abdominal pain. Rather than dealing with liquid peppermint oil, coated capsules can be purchased that are easier to ingest. As with any new supplement or essential oil, make sure you consult with an expert before jumping in with both feet.

There are several options for treatment if you suffer from IBS, and they can be medical, natural or holistic. With different areas of treatment to try, you are bound to find something that helps you minimize your IBS symptoms.