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.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
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’re diagnosed with IBS, there is an upside. IBS does cause a change in bowel habits, but it doesn’t damage the digestive tract as IBD does.
“While the symptoms can be significant, it’s reassuring to know that irritable bowel syndrome is not life-threatening,” says gastroenterologist Brian Kirsh, MD.
What makes IBS worse?
IBS is worsened by stress, anxiety and depression ― and by individual triggers. “It’s difficult to isolate triggers, particularly in your 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.”
While not always predictable, that’s not to say you can’t take steps to help minimize how much your IBS affects your day-to-day life. Here, Dr. Kirsh offers seven practical tips to offset common IBS triggers:
- Avoid caffeine. Pay attention to how you feel if you drink coffee, tea and soda. All of these can cause abdominal discomfort.
- Drink more water. Water is important whether you tend to have constipation or diarrhea and it helps if you increase your fiber intake.
- Eat more fiber. It’s important to eat fruits, vegetables, beans/peas and whole-grain breads and cereals. But be sure to add fiber gradually to minimize bloating!
- 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). If you cut out dairy for good, make sure you get your calcium from fortified dairy alternatives, like almond, soy or coconut milk.
- 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.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise helps you relieve both physical and mental stress.
- Stop smoking. In some people, smoking makes IBS symptoms worse.
When to see a GI specialist for IBS
Make any diet and lifestyle changes gradually to give your body a chance to adapt, Dr. Kirsh says. 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 your IBS symptoms persist, it’s best to see a gastroenterologist. These specialists can prescribe medications to normalize bowel function and rule out other conditions.
“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.