With a multitude of treatment options available for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — from proven prescriptions to over-the-counter remedies and even natural alternatives — it can be tempting to try new things when your current treatment doesn’t seem to be working. But before you grab that new tea or pill, check out these six things your doctor wants you to know.
1. If your treatment isn’t working, make an appointment
If the treatment you’ve been using successfully for a few years suddenly isn’t providing you with the same IBS symptom relief, don’t take matters into your own hands. Instead, make an appointment with your gastroenterologist.
Before you go, think about these questions:
- Have you had any life changes that might impact your overall health? Are you under new stress or dealing with difficult circumstances? Stress and anxiety can negatively impact your gastrointestinal (GI) health.
- Are you taking any new medicines or supplements? Drug interactions may mean your medicine is no longer being absorbed properly.
- Have you been sick recently? Some viruses and bacteria may upset your stomach and GI system for a few weeks or months. Giving yourself a while to recover may help with symptoms.
Don’t self-prescribe new treatments. While it may be easier to try over-the-counter remedies or pick up a bottle of supplements, you may set your treatment back if you begin using the wrong product. A yearly check-in is a good idea, but don’t be hesitant to see your doctor more often if the IBS treatment isn’t helpful.
2. IBS isn’t one-size-fits-all
IBS is frequently referred to as a functional gut disorder. Symptoms of IBS vary from person to person, and IBS is a collection of symptoms instead of a specific set. Indeed, symptoms may vary from day to day. For example, while your symptoms one day may include constipation and abdominal pain, the next day you may experience diarrhea, sweats, and chills.
This varied experience means your treatment options need to be stable and reliable. Don’t stop taking medicines if your symptoms disappear for a little bit. That may be a sign the treatment is working. If you stop treating for IBS, the symptoms may return.
Also, while you can rely on others who have IBS for tips and advice, don’t compare your treatment plan or experiences to theirs. Each of you is facing a different experience with a varied condition.
3. Stress plays a big role
There is no known specific cause for IBS. Likewise, there is no known cure. Treatments are aimed at reducing factors that increase your risk for the symptoms, as well as easing symptoms when you experience them.
One of the first treatments you and your doctor may discuss is stress reduction. People who are anxious or stressed are more likely to develop IBS. In addition, stress can make the symptoms of IBS worse.
Lifestyle practices like meditation may be helpful. You may find that help from a psychologist is useful. Medication to treat anxiety and depression is sometimes an option, but some of these medicines can make GI issues worse. Work with your doctor to find manageable ways to lower stress and anxiety naturally. Your gut will thank you.
4. A balanced diet may help, but food isn’t the problem
For people with IBS and other GI issues, food is always a concern. If you have IBS, your condition isn’t the result of the food you eat. However, eating better, healthier foods may help reduce symptoms, and a balanced diet is an important component to an overall healthier lifestyle.
Understand that the symptoms of food intolerance and IBS are very similar. It may take your doctor several rounds of tests to decide which condition causes your symptoms.
If you suspect certain foods, keep a food journal. Record everything you eat and how you feel after it. Discuss this with your doctor while you’re seeking a diagnosis. Food journals are an easy way to rule out intolerance and allergies.
5. Still, some dietary changes may be helpful
Although food isn’t the cause of IBS, certain foods can make you feel worse when you’re experiencing symptoms. Talk to your doctor about dietary changes that may be helpful. These include:
Avoiding foods that cause gas: Certain foods are notorious for causing gas. Beans, broccoli, carbonated beverages, and fruit are just a few that can increase gas in your GI tract and cause bloating.
Balancing your fiber: Many of the foods that cause gas also have a lot of fiber. Fiber is a mixed blessing for people with IBS. It can help you stay regular, but it may also cause bloating and abdominal pain. Some people tolerate the fiber in supplements better than fiber in food. Talk with your doctor about which is right for you and how to start using fiber to treat your symptoms.
Considering elimination diets: Though it isn’t an answer for everyone, a low-FODMAP diet may help some people with IBS. This diet requires you to eliminate certain nutrients — fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. These nutrients are most commonly found in certain grains, dairy products, fruits, and vegetables.
Research shows that a particular group of people with IBS can benefit from this diet plan. Talk with a registered dietitian about elimination diets and the role they could play in helping you treat IBS.
Looking for trigger foods: Spicy foods, artificial sweeteners, and some food additives may upset your GI system. A food diet can help you and your doctor or dietitian identify possible trigger foods. Eliminating them may help ease symptoms.
Eating for better gut health: Your gut is filled with billions of bacteria, and the relationship between the health of those bacteria and your overall health is becoming clearer.
People with IBS may benefit from eating more probiotic-rich foods, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and more. Research shows a diet rich in probiotics may reduce symptoms — in particular, bloating and abdominal pain.
6. Use “alternative” treatments with caution
Complementary medicines are gaining popularity as people look for alternatives to pharmaceutical treatments. Prices, concerns about side effects, and worries about lasting outcomes make some wary of drugs.
Some alternative treatments have shown great success and are frequently recommended. Peppermint oil, for example, is an accepted alternative treatment. Research shows it can be highly effective for symptoms of IBS.
Unlike pharmaceuticals and prescription treatments, many supplements, vitamins, and oils are not fully vetted for safety and compliance. Likewise, the research isn’t always conclusive. Some of these new, less well-known alternative treatments can also interfere with other medications you’re taking.
You may be tempted to turn to these alternative treatments, especially if traditional treatment options stop working or aren’t successful. Before you do, have a discussion with your doctor.
If your doctor isn’t receptive to your idea for nontraditional treatment options, you may need to find one that embraces the concept of holistic treatment.