Irritable Bowel Syndrome Survival Strategies

by Jude T. Francis

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

IBS is a functional disorder of the Gastro-Intestinal (GI) system. It is not an organic disease but a disorder of the enteric (intestinal) nervous system, where the transit time and sequence of breakdown reactions of food in the gut and intestines are disrupted. The diagnosis of the disorder is commonly based on exclusion of all likely organic diseases (tumors, cancer, inflammatory conditions, etc.). Included among this type of GI disorder is functional dyspepsia.

Symptoms of IBS

IBS symptoms can be described as primarily a sensitivity to a host of foods. These sensitivities cause a wide range of symptoms including pain, intestinal spasms, diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, urgent bowel movements, etc. The actual symptoms may vary from day to day, week to week, month to month or year to year. The symptoms are made significantly worse with stress.

How to Cope with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Identify trigger foods
Identifying trigger foods is a long, arduous process that is constantly a work in progress because trigger foods can change with time. Maintain a diary of foods, to track down the culprits - though the general patterns are similar for a lot of IBS patients. For example, dairy products, fried foods, spicy foods, etc. Dairy product sensitivity is commonly attributed to lactose maldigestion but it could also be due to sensitivity to the milk protein casein. One needs to learn the differences between dairy products : fully cultured yogurt is normally good for most IBS'ers but frozen yogurt is only partially cultured so has plenty of lactose.

Diet Control
Diet control involves controlling one's food intake to avoid or minimize trigger foods and at the same time getting sufficient calories to maintain a reasonably normal body weight and to provide sufficient nutrients and vitamins needed by the body. Diet control is often made difficult by the fact that one's trigger foods can change with time. Another difficulty is the ability to control one's desire for certain foods and tastes. Also add supplemental fiber to your diet. Generally, as a matter of policy, eating smaller meals (and may be eating more frequently) works well.

Knowledge of Symptoms
Knowledge of the disorder and its range of symptoms is a huge factor in decreasing the anxiety associated with the disorder/symptoms. The anxiety and stress clearly exacerbate the symptoms of the disease. There is a lot of new research that is being conducted on IBS and information is fairly easy to find on the internet.

Online Support Groups
Online support groups are of great value for several reasons: 1) you get to chat with others with similar symptoms, especially symptoms that are awkward and difficult to talk about with most people; 2) hear other people's approach and solutions to problems; 3) hear of other treatments, efficacy of herbal treatments; 4) helps keep up to date on articles and news related to disease.

Relaxation, Meditation, Alternative Medicine, Physical Exercise
Relaxation, abdominal breathing, meditation, massage and other alternative therapies have great value even if they do not offer a cure to the disease. Approaches learned from relaxation, abdominal breathing and meditation may help you to listen to my body better and find simple solutions to ease some of the spasms and pain. Regular physical exercise also is a great contributor to overall health.

Lifestyle Changes with a Goal to Reducing Stress
Lifestyle change is another approach that can be beneficial, though is often very hard to do. Especially, for example, changing one's job or career to reduce stress. Other lifestyle changes may include working regular hours, eating regular hours, taking frequent short breaks in office to relax and breath deeply, letting co-workers know of your sensitivity to stress, reducing your responsibilities, etc.

Medications - OTC and Prescription
Medications for IBS range from low-dose antidepressants to anticholinergics, such as, levsin (hyoscyamine).

Several of these coping mechanisms are a constant work in progress that needs to be frequently modified or updated.

Miscellaneous Tips

  • Consider upgrading health insurance to a PPO to provide flexibility to choose the best doctors
  • Find a good gastroenterologist who has significant experience with IBS
  • One sure place to find that is at a teaching hospital associated with a good university
  • Keep a daily/weekly log of health conditions/problems
  • Buy books, search Internet - Knowledge is key to symptom management
  • Join online support groups, chat with other patients.

© Jude T. Francis

Jude Francis lives in Los Angeles, California, has a doctorate in chemical engineering and has worked as an environmental consultant.