Many clients come to me with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). This term is used if you have symptoms that match the Rome IV criteria. This means typically symptoms include bloating and or pain and disordered bowel habits such as constipation, loose stools or diarrhoea, and symptoms have been experienced for at least 3 months prior to being diagnosed. There can be many reasons or causes for IBS and, as usual, dietary advice should always be individual. But here are some simple, general tips to help you on your journey to managing your IBS with diet and lifestyle.
- Cut down on Caffeine. Found in coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks and chocolate, caffeine can trigger digestive symptoms such as loose stools, diarrhoea and acid reflux. These caffeine-containing foods and drinks can irritate the gut lining, weakening it and making it more vulnerable to bad bacteria and ulcers. Caffeine also affects our nervous system by stimulating the stress hormones (fight or flight hormones) that can increase feelings of anxiety, (see 6.) and increase the urge to go to the toilet. Try gradually reducing your caffeine, even if this is just by one cup per day. Remember that decaffeinated beverages still contain some caffeine so these do not make ideal alternatives. Try swapping for herbal teas instead.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners. Sweeteners such as aspartame, acesulfame and saccharin, are found increasingly in foods and drinks, including products promoted as ’healthy’ such as protein bars, diet drinks and yoghurts. Watch out for it in your tonic water! These sweeteners can trigger digestive symptoms such as loose stools and cause an imbalance of the gut bacteria. Our gut bacteria play an essential role in all health, including digestion and absorption of foods, supporting immunity and producing hormones. Sweeteners are also linked with weight gain, diabetes and depression. Due to the pressure of food manufacturers to reduce sugar, artificial sweeteners are creeping in everywhere so always check the ingredients carefully.
- Reduce fried foods – this includes chips, crisps and foods cooked in battered and breadcrumbs. These foods will have been cooked in vegetable oils that can cause cell damage and promote inflammation in the body. Fatty foods such as these can be hard for our bodies to digest and may cause stomach cramps and loose stools. Opt for home grilled or poached chicken or fish instead of battered or bread-crumbed varieties and only eat crisps or chips as an occasional treat or avoid altogether.
- Include gentle fibre called ‘soluble’ fibre. This helps normalise your stools, prevents constipation and feeds the good bacteria in the gut. Examples are oats, bananas, cooked apple and root vegetables such as sweet potato and butternut squash.
- Drink plenty of filtered water. If suffering from constipation, water can help improve bowel movements and in the case of diarrhoea, water is needed to prevent dehydration. For general health, water is also important for detoxification, lubrication of joints and temperature regulation.
- Try to support stress and anxiety. There is often a link between symptoms of IBS and feelings of stress and anxiety. Make time for some form of relaxation. Even just one minute, sitting quietly, taking some slow breaths will be of benefit to your nervous system. Meditation is an excellent way of reducing stress and anxiety. If stress or anxiety is affecting you, consider seeking help from a family member or a professional counsellor or try therapies such as a hypnotherapy, CBT or acupuncture.
- Chew your food. This sounds too obvious but have you ever caught yourself wolfing down your food in a hurry? Chewing our food thoroughly makes sure that all the digestive enzymes are released and food is broken down and digested thoroughly. Make time to eat, avoid eating on the go, and eat ‘mindfully’, enjoying your food without the distraction of screens.