Let’s face it: if you don’t personally suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), you probably know someone who does. Current statistics suggest that a staggering 10-15% of the American population today has to deal with what can, in its worst presentations, be a downright debilitating illness.
It’s a disorder with a host of unpleasant and/or painful symptoms. Abdominal pain is all but a given for those who suffer from IBS: common symptoms are diarrhea and constipation (or bouts of both). It’s a long-term condition with symptoms that can come and go quickly. Though IBS is not life threatening, it is absolutely ‘life-consuming’. Nutrition and a healthy diet, however, offer a great deal of hope for for those whose lives have become, at least in part, defined by the symptoms and pain of IBS.
Why? You are what you eat, as the old saying goes. The diet you follow, whether it’s a vegan diet or a paleo diet or a fast food diet, has a whole lot do with your health; when it comes to matters of the gut, you nutrition is of the utmost experience.
How can you take charge?
IBS & Nutrition: Fiber Matters
Fiber is a key player...but it’s a complicated one. In general, foods rich in fiber (fruits, veggies, and whole grains) can help prevent constipation. That being said, not all fiber is the same: there are two types of fiber out there: soluble and insoluble fibers.
Reduce insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber is not easily broken down during digestion: its main function is to add bulk to stools...for those who suffer from diarrhea, bulky stools are not going to be a big help: insoluble fiber should be reduced. Examples of some foods with high levels of insoluble fiber include corn (and products made with corn derivatives), wheat, and bran.
Increase soluble fiber. Soluble fiber (it attracts water and turns into a gel during the digestion process) softens stools and helps combat constipation: excellent sources of soluble fiber include oats, barley, nuts, seeds, and fruits and vegetables.
IBS & Nutrition: Hydration Matters
If you’re taking in more fiber, don’t forget the water: fiber and water work together to maximize the benefits of both. A recent study showed that water supplementation actually enhances the effects of a high-fiber diet for adults with constipation issues.
8-10 cups of water each day are a must for IBS sufferers (especially if diarrhea is an issue). As diarrhea can lead to a loss of electrolytes as well as water loss, foods rich in potassium help restore electrolytes to the body (bananas, fruit juices, and potatoes are all examples are potassium-rich foods).
IBS & Nutrition: Bacteria Matters
There’s increasing evidence to support the concept that bacterial imbalances in the gut impact IBS. A recently published study found that between 4% and 78% of IBS sufferers also have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.
Fermented foods, and foods rich in probiotics, have been proven to help restore a healthy bacterial balance in the intestines. Go to any health food store and you’ll see shelves lined with probiotic supplements. Supplements aren’t the only way to achieve a healthy bacteria balance: you can get the benefits of probiotic supplements without pills: add foods rich in gut-friendly microbacteria to your diet. Kefir, yogurt, and cultured vegetables such as kimchi and sauerkraut are all excellent options.
IBS & Nutrition: Avoid Triggering Foods
Some foods are better left on the shelves. Foods high in fat, and foods high in insoluble fiber, should be kept to a minimum. Studies have shown that folks with IBS can actually have a sensitivity to foods and are less able to digest fats than non-sufferers.
Studies exploring the connection to fructose intolerance and IBS are currently underway: preliminary results indicate that high-fructose diets can worsen IBS symptoms while low-fructose diets can improve them. If you want to lower the amount of fructose you ingest, fruits to avoid include apples, cherries, pears, watermelon, and pears. Lower-fructose fruits include cantaloupe, blueberries, strawberries, bananas, and oranges (while these fruits have less fructose, advocates still recommend spacing the intake of even low-fructose fruits over the course of a day).
High-fructose fruits you should avoid include apples, cherries, mangoes, watermelon and pears. You can safely have moderate amounts of low-fructose fruits, such as honeydew melon, cantaloupe, bananas, blueberries, strawberries and oranges, if they are well spaced throughout the day.
And, finally, if you suffer from IBS, it might be in your best interest to rethink that morning cup of joe or evening glass of wine: alcohol and caffeine have been shown to aggravate IBS symptoms.
Bottom line? Unfortunately, IBS isn’t going anywhere soon. The good news? A proactive approach to nutrition can provide much-needed relief. Fiber can help control constipation, probiotic-rich foods can help with a spectrum of symptoms, and reducing fatty and fructose-rich foods can keep flare-ups at bay. Other ways to take control over IBS? Studies, in addition to anecdotal evidence, point toward a mind/body connection to IBS symptoms: rest, relaxation, and exercise are a must for anyone...but especially for the 10 to 15% of Americans suffering from IBS.