Irritable bowel syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional bowel disorder in which the bowel function is disrupted and even the most rigorous examinations fail to identify the cause. Functional bowel disorders are common, their occurrence being about 5-15% depending on the diagnostic criteria used. IBS is an embarrassing complaint for many, and it may impair the quality of life. It’s not dangerous and does not involve the risk of developing a serious condition.
In IBS, there’s pain in different parts of the abdomen. Other typical symptoms include:
- Changes in bowel function: stools may be hard or loose and bowel movements more frequent or infrequent than usual
- Alleviation of abdominal symptoms after emptying the bowel
- Feeling that the bowel doesn’t empty properly
- Swelling and flatulence that worsen towards the evening
Symptoms typically fluctuate over time. Sometimes they’re more intense and sometimes they disappear for a while.
IBS is a characteristic rather than a disease. There’s no cure but there are many ways to alleviate the symptoms and make daily life easier. Key to the treatment of IBS is healthy lifestyle, including a healthy diet, exercise, stress management and sufficient rest and sleep. Read more about these in the FSHS Nutrition app, which contains a coaching programme for dealing with abdominal stress to support self-care of abdominal complaints in general. Read more about the FSHS Nutrition app and how to start using it here.
Many people with IBS feel that certain foods affect their symptoms. Finding a suitable diet may significantly alleviate symptoms. However, before making any dietary changes it’s important to follow these general dietary recommendations as a means of promoting bowel health:
- Eat regularly every 3-4 hours during the day and remember moderate portion sizes.
- Eat slowly, chew properly and reserve enough time for eating.
- Eat fibre-containing foods at every meal, including wholegrain products, vegetables, fruits, berries and unflavoured nuts or seeds.
- Drink 1-1.5 litres of fluids daily.
- Replace carbonated and/or sugary drinks with plain water or dilute juice.
- Reduce your consumption of caffeine-containing drinks, such as coffee and tea. Dark roast coffees suit some people better than light roast ones.
- Replace milk products with lactose-free or low-lactose options.
- Avoid eating fatty foods such as burgers, pizza, pies and pastries too frequently.
If the above changes don’t alleviate the symptoms, there’s scientific evidence that the FODMAP diet may help. However, don’t start the FODMAP diet on your own, but contact the student healthcare service.
There are also many kinds of non-prescription products available at pharmacies that you could test to alleviate your symptoms. These include products containing lactic acid bacteria, high-fibre products and peppermint oil capsules. Contact a pharmacy for more information.
When should you seek treatment?
If the symptoms indicative of IBS are new and troublesome, you should contact the student healthcare service. You will need to be assessed by healthcare staff if:
- You have other symptoms in addition to your bowel symptoms, such as unintentional weight loss and fatigue.
- There’s blood in your stools.
- Your bowel movements have changed rapidly (tendency to diarrhoea or constipation) and this has continued for some weeks.
- There’s a history of colon cancer, ovarian cancer or inflammatory bowel diseases in your family.
- The complaints remain troublesome despite self-care.
Treatment of IBS
If self-care and non-prescription products sold at pharmacies don’t relieve symptoms sufficiently, more effective treatment with prescription medicines can be considered when you see a doctor. There are many such medicines available for IBS. Psychological treatments may also alleviate symptoms.
Information sources: The Finnish Medical Society Duodecim: Terveysportti
Registered Dietitian 10 January 2022