Irritable bowel syndrome: 7 tips to manage your symptoms

The desire to help others is often a difficult experience that one would like to avoid for others. Here, I will first relate my personal experience with my gastrointestinal symptoms. If this isn't the kind of story you're interested in, skip ahead to Part 2 where you'll find basic tips for managing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

PART 1: My experience

For me, it started in university. I can't relate it all to one particular event, I only remember the discomfort that started. Severe bloating, pain, loud bowel sounds were part of my discomfort. It wasn't the worst for me. The worst part was the anxiety it caused me. Having to know about the nearby washrooms or to manage my meals according to my classes to avoid the humiliation that everyone hears my stomach, worse, during an exam was so stressful!

I made appointments with my doctor. I am told to make a food diary, write down everything I eat, and try to relate my symptoms to foods, without further details. Yes, I am studying nutrition at the time, but I haven't made it to my clinical classes yet, I have no idea what to do with this information.

I did testing for celiac disease and other blood tests, everything was fine. After a few meetings, my doctor does not know what to tell me to explain my symptoms, because nothing seems abnormal. Except that I don't feel good. In addition to my symptoms, I am still obsessed with this anxiety and suffer from it and was crying more and more because I just didn't know what to do to feel better and I am not given any explanation, and my doctor does not seem to want to push further. Bottom Line: Probably an irritable bowel… maybe you should see a naturopath, they are better than doctors at these things usually.

Did I go? Absolutely. At this point, I am desperate, nothing relieves me and I do not have the critical thinking that I have now with the health care system and the professionals who could help me. This is the resource that my DOCTOR offers me, this professional who is in charge of my health. And I just want to feel better. However, I only went to one appointment. On top of coming out of there with a list of foods to eliminate, products to buy and a VERY hefty bill, I got very weird explanations and went through a series of equally weird testing. I didn't like it at all. I remember feeling even more anxious because now I had spent a huge amount of money on a student and felt completely stupid for going to this appointment. Why not have consulted a dietitian? I was ashamed of not knowing what to do, studying nutrition myself. Today, I would consult another dietitian without hesitating for a problem with which I am not specialized, because I understand that one cannot be an expert in everything!

Looking back, having lived this experience has allowed me to better understand how much we want to do anything to feel better when symptoms cause us discomfort, pain and anxiety and no one answers our questions or guides us with possible solutions to explore. I loved my doctor! I don't want to imagine how it is for those who have a difficult relationship with theirs.

After all that, I didn't see any improvement in my symptoms, I was crying more and more, I felt really helpless. I ended up deciding to go see another doctor in the walk-in clinic. After a quick exam, the conclusion: probably intolerance due to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), make a food journal. Still without explanation or testing.

I ended up developing some tricks. Finding quiet bathrooms where I could go without being afraid of the judgment of others. Develop a timing for my meals to minimize discomfort and loud bowl noise during class. I had developed a kind of dance so I moved around in my chair to prevent others from hearing my stomach and to alleviate the discomfort. Do I need to clarify that I had a lot of difficulty concentrating in class, because I was focusing a lot of my attention on this? Like many people, I tried to temporarily cut out food, but nothing worked.

It wasn't until I graduated from school that I finally acquired the knowledge to control my IBS. I learned the basics, and was able to better control my symptoms. Eventually, I heard about the FODMAP diet and learned more about it. By then my symptoms were much better, but it gave me a better understanding of what was going on in my body and the influence of the food choices I made.

PART 2: 7 tips to better manage your gastrointestinal symptoms

Gastrointestinal symptoms or IBS are common with certain conditions causing chronic pain such as fibromyalgia. So I want to give you some pointers that might help you if you have the same kind of symptoms. I won't talk about the FODMAP diet, but other things to consider BEFORE you consider this diet. I will still take the time to briefly explain a few important points. It is an elimination diet that targets carbohydrates, including sugars and fiber, which in some people can be fermented by bacteria in the gut and cause symptoms. This is a TEMPORARY and COMPLEX diet, and you should not follow it without the support of a knowledgeable dietitian, as you may become discouraged, follow it poorly and have difficulty identifying food triggers and eliminating more foods than necessary. So start by first considering the following points:

1- Beware of common foods causing gas / bloating

A very short list of foods that produce gas in many such as Brussels sprouts, legumes, garlic and onions. As my clients always frown on these last two, I would point out that the oils infused with garlic and onion help retain flavor without the potential digestive upset!

Obviously, if you have clear and known intolerances, you should avoid or limit these foods according to your tolerance. If this is not the case, it is not advised to try to eliminate foods, such as following the FODMAP diet, on your own. As I mentioned before, you risk either eliminating too much food permanently or having deficiencies, but in addition to being completely unhappy and frustrated with your diet.

2- Eat smaller meals and more frequently, ideally at set times.

It avoids overloading the digestive system and can help reduce bloating. Above all, do not skip meals to avoid symptoms!

3- Stay hydrated

It’s always important. Especially if you suffer from constipation, drinking more water will help a lot. If you are trying to eat more fiber, it is also crucial to increase your hydration, otherwise digestive symptoms will increase. Also, limit your intake of caffeine, as it stimulates the gut and can make diarrhea worse.

4- Limit your intake of refined sugars and sweeteners

A large amount of refined sugar in the diet can increase diarrhea and digestive discomfort, as large amounts of sugar can draw water into the intestines. Some artificial sweeteners can also increase symptoms in people with IBS, so avoid “diet”, light or sugar-free products that often contain them. It is best to eat sugar, but reduce the total amount in our diet.

5- Try to move more during the day

A big part of my problem in university. I was sometimes on site for 12-13 hours, having classes in the morning and in the evening, and I took the opportunity to study and work on projects. Which meant I was spending long hours sitting. Walking is one of the activities that helps the most with gas / bloating and constipation, think of it as a massage for your bowels. Some yoga positions help a lot as well. If your IBS is more of a diarrhea type, be careful with very strenuous activities, which can worsen the symptoms.

6- When you have to go to the bathroom… just go!

Another significant point that we do not always think about. It is in fact a diagnostic criteria for IBS: defecation provides relief from symptoms. It sounds so simple, but it isn't always. Many don't want to go to a public bathrooms, for example. So I'll say this: stop judging people who defecate in public toilets !!! This is what bathrooms are for !! Otherwise, many figure out it's helpful for them to do things like figuring out a quieter time or hidden bathrooms nobody goes to where they will be sure not to be disturbed.

7- Work on stress management

IBS is very individual, everyone reacts differently to the points mentioned above and this is true for stress as well. Some people are affected by stress more than others, but it tends to make symptoms worse. Maybe you've had a really bad stomach ache before a big stressful presentation, or know someone who reacts that way? You know yourself best, and know what's best for you when it comes to stress management. Physical activity, yoga, meditation may be enough for some, but if you are dealing with a lot of stress and have a lot of pressure on your shoulders, seeing a psychologist can help you greatly.

Obviously, these tips are possible solutions, but will not replace the support of a healthcare professional. I've said it before, I'll say it again: a follow-up with a dietitian can not only prevent you from making mistakes that would prevent you from identifying your food triggers yourself, but above all provide you with support to avoid getting discouraged and that your relationship with food becomes hell. Stay tuned, as I will soon be making my Food and Symptom Diary available to help you track your symptoms and give you more clarity about how your body reacts to food.

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