Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is an uncomfortable and distressing condition which causes debilitating abdominal discomfort and pain, affecting over 20% of Aussies. However, due its somewhat embarrassing symptoms, many people living with IBS do not seek help—with over half of IBS sufferers not seeking treatment. We decided that it’s time to shine the spotlight on this condition and shake out the taboo to help women on their journey to better tummy health. We chatted to Dr. Tal Rapke, founder of ScalaMed, about some of the standout symptoms and common causes of IBS, and how we can best treat and manage the condition.

The mind-gut connection

While the exact cause of IBS is still unknown, “a significant contributor to this debilitating condition is stress, which both exacerbates and aggravates sufferer’s symptoms.” Stress and anxiety cause biochemical changes in our bodies—and our guts are particularly vulnerable to this.  “When we’re under stress, the body does not see digestion as a priority,” says Dr. Rapke, “the nervous system redirects blood flow away from the intestines to our extremities, known as fight or flight.” Because our brains don’t know the difference between the stress of an overwhelming workload, a poor diet not giving us the nutrients we need or being chased by a predator—we respond in the same way to emotional stress as we do to physical stress.

Abdominal symptoms

Common symptoms of IBS include bloating, constipation and/or diarrhoea, flatulence, reflux, indigestion and abdominal pain. “These symptoms are often associated with the consumption of FODMAP foods, which stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols, and are a specific group of sugars found in certain carbohydrates,” says Dr. Rapke, “and often these foods are poorly absorbed in the small intestine.” When they are poorly absorbed, increased water may be drawn into the gut, resulting in diarrhea for some people. For others, the carbohydrates travel to the large intestine where they are fermented by bacteria, which then produces gas. This gas can lead to additional symptoms of IBS including bloating, constipation, flatulence, pain and nausea.

Stress free you

As stress is one of the highest contributors to inducing an IBS flare up, “managing stress levels is key to reducing the symptoms of IBS,” says Dr. Rapke. Some of the best activities to reduce stress include walking, yoga and meditation. Yoga especially helps to de-stress and calm the nervous system, and “stimulates blood flow to the abdominal region and gut, ultimately helping to regulate digestion,” says Dr. Rapke.

Nutritional support

“It’s worthwhile to start a diary to keep track of what you eat each day,” says Dr. Rapke, “write down what certain foods do to your digestion and how you felt after you ate them. That way, health professionals can figure out and adjust your diet to reduce foods that trigger symptoms.” Recent research also shows that up to 86% of people who follow a low FODMAP diet experience significant improvement in IBS symptoms in just a few short weeks—Dr. Rapke supports “there has been a huge amount of research published to support the use of a low FODMAP diet to treat and manage IBS. It’s an extremely effective dietary approach to help manage sufferer’s symptoms.” According to Dr. Rapke, you could try eating more fiber if you have constipation—foods like fruit, vegetables or fiber pills or powders. You could also try light exercise for 20 to 60 minutes a day, 5 days a week to help reduce symptoms. You can also try taking gut-loving probiotics, chewing food slowly and not drinking during meals, which will help the body process food in a less stressed state.

If IBS symptoms are getting you down or if you experience significant bleeding, weight loss, or unexplained iron deficiency anemia, seek help from a health professional.