Irritable Bowel Syndrome: 7 Trigger-busters

Learn about IBS and how to manage it

older woman in bed holding her stomach

If you have frequent abdominal pain, bloating, cramping diarrhea and/or constipation, you could worry that you have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease — or even cancer. However, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can cause these symptoms too.

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IBS usually strikes people under age 45 and affects twice as many women as men. Doctors diagnose IBS when three or more bouts of unexplained abdominal discomfort/pain occur for three months in a row.

If you are diagnosed with IBS, there is an upside. IBS does cause a change in bowel habits, but it does not damage the digestive tract as IBD does. “While the symptoms can be significant, IBS is not life-threatening,” says gastroenterologist Brian Kirsh, MD.

IBS is worsened by stress, anxiety and depression and by individual triggers. “It’s difficult to isolate triggers, particularly in the diet,” says Dr. Kirsh. “One day, you can eat a particular food, like salad, and feel fine, yet on the next day, it seems to trigger an attack.”

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Here are seven tips to offset common IBS triggers:

  1. Avoid caffeine. Pay attention to how you feel if you drink coffee, tea and soda, which can cause abdominal discomfort.
  2. Drink more water. Water is important whether you tend to have constipation or diarrhea and it helps if you increase your fiber intake.
  3. Eat more fiber. It’s important to eat fruits, vegetables and whole-grain breads and cereals.
  4. Limit dairy intake. Experiment with cutting back on dairy to see if you have lactose intolerance (a condition that makes dairy products hard to digest).
  5. Reduce your stress levels. Do what you can to relax, whether taking time for a hot bath, taking short rests during the day or adopting relaxation practices, such as meditation or yoga.
  6. Exercise regularly. Exercise helps you relieve both physical and mental stress.
  7. Stop smoking. In some people, smoking makes IBS symptoms worse.

Make any diet and lifestyle changes gradually to give your body a chance to adapt. Your primary care doctor can suggest changes in diet and lifestyle to help you manage mild IBS. A visit with a registered dietitian may also be worthwhile.

If IBS symptoms persist, it’s best to see a gastroenterologist. These specialists can prescribe medications to normalize bowel function and rule out other conditions.

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“There are many treatment strategies to make IBS manageable,” says Dr. Kirsh.

Be sure to consult a gastroenterologist if bleeding or weight loss occurs, or if you have a family history of digestive disorders.