School can be hard enough with exams, packed class schedules, and locker room drama. But irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) often adds an extra challenge.
IBS can cause a lot of unpleasant symptoms, including:
These symptoms may not necessarily pose a danger to your health, but they can still cause plenty of distress — something you may already know for yourself if your stomach has ever started gurgling in a crowded lecture hall.
If you’re a student dealing with IBS symptoms, you have plenty of company. IBS affects roughly 3 million Americans each year, including many teens and young adults.
Even so, you don’t have to live in fear of your colon’s whims. Instead, consider trying these eight strategies to manage your IBS symptoms at school and potentially make your life a little easier.
Cafeteria food isn’t always friendly to sensitive bowels. School lunch staples that may trigger IBS symptoms include:
- Pizza: Cheese, garlic, onions, and other common toppings can all affect digestion when you have IBS.
- Baked beans: Beans, peas, and lentils may lead to bloating and gas.
- French fries: Fried, high fat foods can often cause diarrhea if you have a sensitive stomach.
- Broccoli and cauliflower: These veggies may cause constipation or diarrhea, especially when eaten raw.
- Diet soda: Artificial sweeteners can cause cramping or diarrhea.
Packing your own lunch lets you control what you eat for the day. For example, if you crave chicken tenders but your school’s version gives you gas, try baking pieces of chicken instead of frying them. Small adjustments like these can make a big difference for your bowel health.
As a bonus, packing your own lunch lets you skip the long cafeteria lines and spend your whole lunch period enjoying your meal. When you eat at a slower pace, you give your digestive system more time to react to incoming food.
Make friends with fiber and water
Fiber and water can help your stool move through your body.
To manage IBS symptoms, the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders recommends getting 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day and staying hydrated by drinking 8 cups of fluid per day.
A spastic colon is rarely a patient colon. If you try to hold everything in, your pain will likely get worse until you relieve yourself. You prefer to avoid leaving for the bathroom in the middle of class, but this will likely draw less attention than the worst-case scenario: an accident.
Taking a seat by the door can help your departure go less noticed. If you sit in the middle of the room, you’ll have to stand up, scooch past everyone in your row, and walk across the room to leave. But if you sit right next to the door, you can slip out without needing to maneuver around anyone else.
If you expect you’ll need to leave class regularly, you’ll probably want to let your teacher know about your medical situation.
Since IBS can count as a disability, you may be eligible for accommodations, according to the U.S. Department of Education. A permanent hall pass may be one accommodation.
In college and no longer need permission to leave class? Even so, clueing your professor in ahead of time can still help prevent awkward mid-lesson questions.
For many people, IBS symptoms are worse in the morning.
Your colon isn’t as active at night, so sometimes there’s a bit of a backlog when you wake up and have breakfast, which can lead to constipation symptoms, per
If you’re a college student with morning IBS symptoms, you may want to sign up for classes in the afternoon and evening, when you may have less bowel trouble.
You don’t have much control over your school hours in high school, of course. Still, you might consider asking your guidance counselor about scheduling a study hall or free period in the morning to give yourself a built-in bathroom break.
Remember, it’s OK to take the time you need to do your business. Pooping is a process, one that may take longer when you have IBS, so have patience with your body.
If you menstruate, your cycle can have a major effect on your bowels. The hormones estrogen and progesterone can reduce the muscle contractions in your intestines, slowing down your stool’s transit through your body. This can cause constipation during your luteal phase (the stage between ovulation and menstruation).
During your period, your estrogen and progesterone levels drop, allowing your intestinal muscles to move more freely than usual. This change helps explain why diarrhea and pain commonly happen during your menstrual period.
Keeping track of your period throughout each phase can offer a forecast of your future bowel health. In short, IBS symptoms can happen anytime, but you may want to take extra care of yourself the week of your period.
Avoid using menstrual pads for diarrhea
Using pads in your underwear as a short-term measure to manage diarrhea might seem like a great idea, especially if you consider menstrual pads more discreet than incontinence pads.
Keep in mind, though, that menstrual pads are designed to absorb fluid, not semi-solid feces. Incontinence pads, on the other hand, are shaped to contain loose stool and minimize odors, making them ultimately the more discreet option for diarrhea.
Packing a supply kit in your backpack can ease some of your stress around how you’ll handle IBS symptoms away from home.
You might include some over-the-counter (OTC) medications, including:
- antidiarrheals to fight diarrhea and firm up your stool
- antispasmodics to reduce pain caused by cramps and spasms
- laxatives to help ease constipation
Just keep in mind you’ll generally only want to use these medications for short-term relief, not continuous treatment. When using these medications, always follow the dosage instructions on the label and ask a healthcare professional before using them for longer periods of time.
If OTC medications don’t relieve your symptoms, reaching out to a healthcare professional is a good option. They can prescribe medication you can safely take for a longer period of time.
Things to bring
In addition to medication, you may also want to pack:
- a water bottle to stay hydrated during class
- a portable heating pad for pain relief
- incontinence pads and a change of underwear, in case of accidents
Stress can often worsen IBS symptoms.
Since stress increases inflammation in your colon, it can lead to swelling, spasms, and heightened pain signals from your nerves. Stress can also worsen both constipation and diarrhea, though your specific symptoms can depend on which IBS subtype you have.
But how do you de-stress while doubled over in pain on a public toilet? Your go-to breathing exercises may not prove as soothing, given the environment. A few other options to find some calm include:
Rubbing your abdomen may help relieve constipation and pain, according to
Aim to start with gentle pressure — the goal is to relax, not physically maneuver your intestines. If a particular area feels sensitive, you may want to move on to other parts of your abdomen to loosen things up.
Progressive muscle relaxation
You can also try progressive muscle relaxation.
Here’s how to try it:
- Scrunch your face up as tight as you can for 3 breaths.
- Hold for 3 breaths.
- Then relax your face, noting the warm relief as your muscles release.
- Repeat with other muscles, working your way down from your shoulders to your chest and arms, letting the warmth spread through you.
- Once you’ve practiced on other parts of your body, you can try it with your abdomen.
- Tighten your core for 3 breaths, hold, and then release.
- You can repeat this process with your abdomen, or you can move on to relax your glutes and legs.
When you’re done, you may find your body feels less tense than it did before.
Like any chronic medical condition, IBS can sometimes make it very difficult to focus on your schoolwork — or anything else.
According to a
- lowered productivity an average of 8 days a month
- caused participants to miss an average of 1.5 days of work or school a month
- caused 6% of participants to miss at least 6 days of work or school a month
Keeping up with your schoolwork by doing a little each day can help you minimize IBS-related disruptions.
To put it another way, if you leave all the studying for Monday’s exam until Sunday evening, procrastination stress may trigger an IBS episode, and you might find yourself unable to study at all.
If you regularly miss a lot of school days, ask your teacher how you can get notes from class. Some schools may even offer the option of watching lessons remotely at home.
A school or guidance counselor acts as an advocate for students, so they can offer support with handling any concerns related to IBS, including:
- bullying or harassment
- trouble getting teachers to take your medical needs seriously
- schedule changes to accommodate your needs
They can also, in some cases, help you explore other factors that might contribute to IBS symptoms. Many people with IBS also live with mental health conditions, for example.
Treating those issues can often make a difference when it comes to your IBS symptoms. If you aren’t sure how to get support on your own, a counselor can suggest next steps, like reaching out to a therapist or doctor to learn more about treatment options.
IBS can throw a wrench in your school life, but it doesn’t have to ruin your education. Small changes, such as packing your own lunch or practicing relaxation techniques, can help you manage your symptoms.
If the strategies above don’t do much to improve your day-to-day routine, a good next step might involve consulting a gastroenterologist for more personalized support.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.