Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Symptoms, Triggers and Prevention – includes a free patient information PDF!

Download the free patient handout PDF near the end of this article!

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is when a person’s colon is not working properly so food moves too slow or too fast through the colon. IBS causes many uncomfortable symptoms but many can be relieved or reduced through diet and lifestyle changes.

Your Colon and IBS

IBSThe large intestine, often referred to as your colon, connects your small intestine to your rectum and anus. The colon’s main job is to absorb what your body needs from the food you eat. Whatever your body does not need the colon sends to the small intestine and then to the rectum where it exits as stool.

IBS is when the contents in the colon do not move correctly to the small intestine and out as stool. This leads to gas, stomach pains, or cramping. If the contents move too fast they become watery and result in diarrhea. If the contents do not move fast enough you become constipated.

Symptoms of IBS

  • Gas and/or bloating
  • Abdominal pain and/or cramps
  • Chronic diarrhea, constipation or both
  • Swollen and/or bloated abdomen
  • Mucus in stool
  • Feeling like you have to have a bowel movement after you just did

Triggers of IBS

No one knows the exact cause of IBS, but research has shown that certain foods, hormones, illnesses and stress can trigger IBS or make it worse.

You can print copies of this PDF handout for your patients, to reinforce what you have told them.
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When some people eat these foods it makes their IBS worse. If you stop eating these foods for awhile and your IBS gets better, these foods are triggers for you and you should not eat them.

  • Dairy products like milk or cheese
  • Alcohol
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Foods that are fried or high in fat
  • Beans, cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli
  • Caffeinated products including coffee and tea
  • Carbonated drinks like sodas
  • Chocolate

Stress can increase the amount of IBS symptoms you have. Ask your health care provider about for handouts on stress and relaxation methods that can help you relax and reduce your stress.

For women certain times in their menstrual cycle can lead to increased symptoms of IBS because of the hormones that are being released at that time. Talk to your health care provider if you have increased IBS symptoms during menstruation (your period).

Relieving Symptoms

Diet Changes

  • Keep a journal of what you eat and when you have bad symptoms. This can help you figure out what foods trigger your IBS so that you can avoid them.
  • Drink lots of fluids, the majority of your fluids should be water.
  • Slowly increase the amount of fiber in your diet (see below).
  • Eat small meals. Large meals can cause cramping or diarrhea in some people.

Keep Active and Moving

  • Exercise regularly, this can reduce stress and encourage normal intestine contractions which can alleviate constipation.
  • Massage, deep breathing techniques, acupuncture, and yoga can move and relax muscles around the digestive tract which can reduce IBS symptoms.

Lifestyle Changes

  • Try to get on an eating schedule and eat at the same time every day. This can help your digestive system to get more regular.
  • Quit smoking; this can also help your digestive system.

There are medications available that may help relieve your IBS. Talk with your health care provider about taking any medications, even over-the-counter medications including laxatives, fiber supplements, and herbal remedies.

Dietary Fiber

Some foods make IBS better. Fiber may reduce constipation and help relieve some IBS symptoms. Fiber moves through your digestive system and helps it to function properly.

Examples of Foods with Fiber

Whole Grains & Beans
oats, rye and barley
kidney and lima beans
black beans and chick peas
soy beans and lentils
Nuts and Seeds
almonds, walnuts & pecans
flax seeds
pumpkin or sunflower seeds

Fiber should be added to your diet slowly. Fiber can be helpful but it can increase bloating, gas, and/or cramping if too much fiber is added too quickly, so add a little at a time.

Talk to your health care provider if you have any questions or concerns about adding fiber to your diet.

Used with permission from the Community Health Association of Mountain/Plains States (CHAMPS)