DIGESTION, YOUR INTESTINES, and IBS

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We don’t tend to talk about digestive health often. But it’s a key part of your overall health and quality of life. It’s common to experience minor digestive problems every now and then—gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation. But if you have these symptoms often, you may want to talk to your doctor. You may have irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.

April is national IBS Awareness Month, so it’s a good time to talk about what IBS is. IBS is a chronic problem that affects how your intestines work. When you have IBS, your large intestine pushes food through your system too quickly or too slowly. This can cause painful symptoms. Cramps, gas, and bloating after meals are common. Some people have chronic problems with diarrhea. Others get frequent constipation. Still others get both.

Researchers don’t yet know what causes IBS, but there are some common triggers. Symptoms may be triggered by big meals, high-fat meals, certain foods or medicines, and stress. In women, hormones can also play a role. Symptoms may be worse during menstruation.

IBS can be both painful and distressing. But it does not damage your body or lead to any disease. And while there is no cure for IBS at the moment, the following diet and stress management tips may help relieve your symptoms:

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet and eat your meals at regular times.
  • Drink plenty of water each day. A good rule of thumb is to try to drink half your body weight in ounces a day. If you weigh 160 pounds, that would be 80 ounces of water a day—or 10 cups. But the amount of water you need will be influenced by many other factors, such as gender, weight, level of activity, and the weather.
  • Eat smaller meals or portions. This may be especially helpful if you get diarrhea.
  • Limit or avoid foods that make your symptoms worse. These will be different for each person and can be hard to pin down. Some common culprits include fatty foods, coffee, alcohol, chocolate, soda, and milk.
  • Experiment with fiber to find out what works best for you. Fiber can reduce constipation. But it may increase gas, cramps, and bloating. Be aware of which types of fiber produce uncomfortable symptoms for you and which types of fiber and amounts work best for you.
  • Practice relaxation skills like belly breathing, meditation, and biofeedback. All of these skills can help you quickly lower your stress.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise is a great stress reliever. It can also help keep your bowel movements regular.
  • Get good, quality sleep. A good night’s sleep can make stress easier to cope with. And it can help keep stress from piling up.

For people with mild IBS, lifestyle changes like these may work well to manage symptoms. Just remember that it can take time for your body to respond to the changes you are making, so be patient.

And if lifestyle changes alone don’t work, talk to your doctor about other treatment options. He or she can help you find the best treatment approach. Remember, you can take steps to manage your IBS and feel better.