When you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), there’s two things you want:
- You want the pain to go away and for your bowels to stop giving you trouble.
- You want to be able to live your life normally, just like everyone else.
But with IBS it’s a catch 22. You normally can’t have both things at once. And if you do manage it, it doesn’t usually last long.
So why is managing IBS such a balancing act?
To get the pain to go away and have your bowels stop being so temperamental, you need to change a lot of things in your life and give up on some things that you don’t really want to. But if you do commit and make these changes, the pain will go away or at least become a lot less severe. Then, when your IBS is no longer stopping you, you can finally get back to living your life.
But if you start living ‘normally’ like everyone else, sooner or later your IBS symptoms will be triggered again. It may be something you eat, drink or do, or even something you don’t do. But if you loosen the reigns too much, your pain and touchy bowels will reappear, along with that normal life you worked so hard to get.
This, unfortunately, is the situation with IBS for most people. It’s a constant balancing act.
Getting your IBS under control means making changes to your life to remove the things that trigger your IBS.
Since IBS is different for all of us, this means there’s no set of rules that are guaranteed to make things better. Instead, you need to take the time to figure out what your personal triggers are and then work to minimise them so your IBS won’t get set off.
But while there are lots of individual differences, there are certain things that most people can work through to improve their IBS:
- Eat a healthier diet with more vegetables and wholegrains. See: Tips for a healthier low FODMAP diet.
- Avoid sugary and fatty processed foods as much as possible, including lollies, chocolates, cakes, biscuits, chips, and deep-fried foods.
- Eat enough fibre to keep your bowels moving to avoid constipation. But don’t dramatically increase your fibre overnight, do it gradually so you don’t aggravate your symptoms. See: What is a normal bowel movement?.
- Drink lots of water (or other fluids) each day, aiming for 6-8 glasses/cups per day.
- Exercise regularly, preferably daily, so that you’re doing at least 30 minutes on five days each week. This can be walking, running, sport, cycling, gym… whatever works for you.
- Get a good night’s sleep every evening, which will help to keep your hormones (and entire body) working optimally.
- Decrease the amount of stress in your life and get better at managing stress when it does occur. See: Dealing with stress and IBS.
- Try removing known gut irritants to see if your IBS gets better. This includes alcohol, caffeine, fatty foods, chilli, chocolate, and carbonated drinks. For some people, removing citrus foods and tomatoes may also help. See: Is alcohol low FODMAP and how much is safe to drink when you have IBS?
- Investigate whether you have any food intolerances that are aggravating your gut and triggering your IBS. See: What is a low FODMAP diet and who is it for? and Your guide to starting a low FODMAP diet.
For most people, changing only one of these things won’t be enough to completely resolve IBS symptoms. Instead, most people need to work through several, or even most, of these nine things.
Yet most ‘normal’ people rarely do most of these things every day, let alone all nine of them. So if you make all of these changes, while it would be good for your IBS, it takes you away from the life that you’re used to and probably wish you could still be living.
But this is the thing that you need to understand… IBS can’t be cured. Your stuck with it for the long haul.
That means you can either accept it and get on with finding ways to live with it and make it less of a problem in your life. Or, you can rebel against it and refuse to avoid the things that you know will trigger your symptoms.
And that is the balancing act.
Some days you will want to do everything possible to keep your IBS under control.
Some days you will want to forget that your IBS exists and instead do whatever you want.
There are consequences to each choice, so it’s up to you to decide which choice you’re prepared to make on any given day. You need to decide how much you’re willing to tolerate in order to get the things that you want.
Most of the time, my primary concern is keeping my IBS under control.
The consequence of that choice is accepting that I’ll be restricted in some parts of my life and that I’ll actively be making decisions that wouldn’t always be my default choice.
Normally I’m okay with these restrictions because I understand the benefits they bring.
Sometimes though I want the things that I’ve been missing out on.
It might be a food that I haven’t had in ages, such as biscuits, cake or chips. Or I might want to skip exercising for a few days (or more) because it’s cold and wet outside, I’m tired, or I just want to be lazy and sit on the couch and watch TV. Or maybe I want to eat a particular food or ingredient that I know for certain I’m intolerant to, such as fruit bun, an apple, or garlic.
But always a part of me is aware of the potential consequences of taking these risks.
When I have to weigh up the risks, this is what I ask myself:
- From past experience, is it likely this will trigger my symptoms?
- How much can I have, or do, or not do, before my symptoms will set in?
- How long will it take for the symptoms to set in?
- How long are the symptoms likely to last?
- Can I afford to be dealing with the symptoms for that long (and not living the rest of my life properly)?
Sometimes the risk is low and I’ll only get minor symptoms that will be uncomfortable, but that won’t stop my life. Other times the symptoms may be much greater and make it difficult (or even impossible) for me to do my job.
My other consideration is how the symptoms might affect other parts of my life and cause an additive effect to make the situation even worse. For instance, a lot of pain, gas and constipation can make it difficult to sleep and exercise, which increases my stress levels, and stress is one of my worst triggers. So choosing to eat one piece of the wrong type of food can sometimes affect my IBS on multiple levels, resulting in a huge storm.
But if I don’t take these risks occasionally, I feel constantly restricted. That does my head in. So sometimes I have to take the risk just to feel sane and deal with the consequences anyway. As I said, it’s a balancing act.
The more I learn about my symptoms, the easier it is to work out the pros and cons of each choice I can make. This makes it easier for me to balance my IBS and manage my symptoms, while still living my life.
It hasn’t been easy getting to this point though. It’s taken a long time and is still a work in progress.
So don’t be disheartened if you’re having trouble managing your IBS or if it’s taking you a while to work out your own triggers. Sticking with it for the long haul is the best thing you can do.
And if you’re struggling to do this on your own, please seek help from a qualified health professional who can help you to work through your situation and come up with a solution that will work for you.