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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the name given to a longstanding illness consisting of frequent abdominal discomfort and bowel symptoms that cannot be explained by any other disease.

Symptoms include:

  • Abdominal cramps, often relieved by going to the toilet

  • Bloating

  • Diarrhoea

  • Constipation

  • Frustrated defecation (needing to go to the toilet but not being able to)

Other common symptoms that may be associated with IBS:

  • Tiredness

  • Nausea

  • Heartburn and indigestion

  • Backache

  • Needing to pass urine frequently

  • Headaches

  • Muscle pains

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

IBS is an illness that has no specific cause, no distinctive pathology and no single effective treatment.

The symptoms can vary from person to person and in the same person different times but often in response to what happens or changes in diet or life style.

Physiological studies have shown that the gut in IBS tends to be more sensitive and reactive (irritable). Causes of this may include a traumatic or upsetting event or situation or an attack of gastroenteritis.

It is more common in women than men and tends to start in teenage or twenties and may persist on and off throughout life, often depending on what is happening.


To remain fit and healthy, we should all try to eat a balanced diet. This means that we need to eat foods from the five major food groups, meat and fish, fruit and vegetables, cereals, pasta and potatoes, dairy in appropriate proportions.

However, the sensitive guts of people with IBS may react to certain fruits and vegetables that contain poorly absorbed sugars, to fats, wheat based cereals, dairy products ,hot spice, coffee and some high fibre foods, begging the question,

What can I eat?

It is still possible to eat a rich and varied diet while restricting foods that may upset your gut.

You just need to have a few guidelines:

  • Reduce your intake of onions and pulses (peas, lentils and beans).

  • Reduce your intake of fruits that contain stones (citrus fruits are fine)

  • Reduce your intake of milk to no more than half a pint a day, use lactose free milk or supplement with calcium enriched plant milks.

  • Reduce high fat dairy foods

  • Reduce your intake of fatty meat.

  • Avoid hot spicy food and caffeinated drinks.

And drink well too

It is important to drink enough fluids during the day to keep you well hydrated, but you need to be careful of some drinks.

Fizzy carbonated drinks can tend to cause bloating

Coffee, tea and many ‘energy’ drinks contain caffeine, which may stimulate colonic spasms.

Alcohol can irritate the gut and may cause diarrhoea. Drink no more than two units per day and have at least two days a week off.

Polyols. Sugar free mints, chewing gum, flavoured water and other low calorie products may contain sorbitol, mannitol or xylitol, which can cause diarrhoea if too much is consumed.

Some advice

  • Make a note of your symptoms to notice whether any reactions occur when you eat a particular food. To be sure the reaction should occur on three separate occasions before you restrict it from your diet. Take this record with you when you go and see your doctor.

  • Ask your GP to refer you to a state registered dietician if you are struggling to make changes or if you are losing weight as a result of dietary restrictions.

  • Remember that your IBS diet is not a life sentence. As your symptoms improve and you gain confidence, you can gradually build up the foods you have excluded, one group at a time, to try to get back to a normal diet.

  • Make the easy changes first.

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