What is IBS and how is it treated?

In this first lesson, we’ll cover what IBS is, what causes it and where the low FODMAP diet fits into treatment.

By Laura Tilt

What is IBS?   

IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) is a common gut condition that affects how the gut moves and functions.   

It causes symptoms like tummy pain and a change in your stools (poo). IBS affects between 5-10 % of people and is more common in women than men. Most people with IBS are under the age of 50.   

Symptoms of IBS  

The main symptoms of IBS are   

  • abdominal (tummy) pain at least once a week  
  • a change in how often you poo, or what your poo likes OR  
  • Relief or worsening of tummy pain when you poo  

Other gut symptoms can include:   

  • Bloating  
  • Wind 
  • Flatulence 
  • Bloating  
  • Burping  
  • Urgency 
  • Diarrhoea  
  • Constipation  
  • Nausea  
  • Reflux 
  • Rumbling tummy noises  
  • Passing mucus  
  • Symptoms worsen after eating  

Non-gut symptoms can include:  

  • Fatigue  
  • Headache  
  • Backache  
  • Poor sleep  
  • Depression  
  • Anxiety 
  • Pain  

What causes IBS?  

Experts think IBS develops when the network of nerves that link the brain and gut changes. The network of nerves that line the gut is the ‘enteric nervous system’ or ENS. The ENS controls the function, movement and sensitivity of the gut.   

Alterations in the ENS can make the gut more sensitive, and trigger changes in bowel habits. Other factors which may be involved in development of IBS include:  

  • Genetics  
  • Stress  
  • Changes in the gut bacteria living in the gut 
  • A previous gut infection  
  • Repeated antibiotic use  
  • Interactions  

As well as these factors, certain foods and parts of our lifestyle may trigger or worsen symptoms. For example, high stress levels, caffeine, fatty foods and poor sleep may make symptoms worse.  

How is IBS treated? 

IBS is a long-term condition, and symptoms can fluctuate. There isn’t any cure for IBS. Instead, treatments aim to manage or improve the symptoms of IBS, so they have less impact on your quality of life.  

Treatments include:    

  • Simple changes to diet like adjusting how much fibre and caffeine you consume  
  • Changes to lifestyle, like including regular exercise and finding ways to reduce stress  
  • A low FODMAP diet – a type of elimination diet which reduces foods that can trigger symptoms 
  • Medications that target symptoms like abdominal pain or diarrhoea
  • Talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy 
  • Gut-directed Hypnotherapy  

 Making simple changes to your diet and lifestyle is the first step to managing IBS, and many people find them helpful. 

You can try these changes without needing to see a dietitian. To learn more about these changes, read this factsheet from the British Dietetic Association.  

 If these first step changes don’t improve symptoms, you can try a low FODMAP diet. This is what we’ll be guiding you through over the next 2-6 weeks, to help you identify if FODMAPs are a trigger for your symptoms.  

We’ll be explaining exactly what FODMAPs are and how they trigger symptoms in the next few lessons. So, when you’re ready, join us in lesson 2.