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Medically reviewed by Robert Burakoff, MD
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects up to 1 in 5 people in the United States. It is characterized by gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea and constipation. Treatment for IBS often includes multiple strategies, as most people don’t feel relief from only one treatment method. If you have IBS, your healthcare provider may recommend medications, mental health care, and probiotics, as well as changes to your lifestyle and diet.
They may recommend that you invest in self-care, or actions you can take to increase your quality of life. Self-care might look like learning mindfulness techniques, getting regular physical activity, or spending time with a friend. Because self-care can improve your mental and physical health, it could be especially helpful for IBS, which is linked to your stress levels and other components of mental health.
How Self-Care Can Help IBS
Self-care can help you manage your IBS symptoms and improve your quality of life, especially when paired with medical treatment. For example, a 2016 study found that pairing self-care with medical treatment for IBS resulted in improved quality of life and less severe symptoms than medical care alone. Other research has shown that when people with IBS engage in self-care, such as yoga, in combination with treatment, they may be able to reduce their medication.
Types of Self-Care for IBS
Just as your typical self-care routine might differ from someone else’s, a self-care routine for IBS can be highly personalized, particularly depending on what helps alleviate your symptoms. However, some specific self-care strategies have been researched and shown to improve IBS symptoms. They include dietary changes, stress reduction, supplements, and physical activity.
Eat More Fiber
Eating more fiber is strongly recommended by the American College of Gastroenterology to help alleviate IBS symptoms. Put simply, fiber usually makes it easier to poop, which can particularly help if you have constipation as a result of IBS. There are two kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble, which is found in beans, fruits, and oats, has been shown to be more effective for improving bowel movements in people with IBS.
It’s important not to rapidly increase your fiber intake, which could cause gas and make your IBS symptoms worse. Slowly add 2 to 3 grams of fiber a day, up to 22 to 34 grams total. To know how much fiber is in the foods you normally eat, check the nutrition label. You may also try a fiber supplement, such as psyllium husk, beginning with a low dose and slowly building up. If you find that fiber makes your symptoms worse, not better, you may want to ask your healthcare provider about other options.
Avoid Eating Gluten or Lactose
Two foods that may increase IBS symptoms are gluten and lactose, so your healthcare provider may advise you to cut either (or both) out of your diet to see if symptoms improve.
If your healthcare provider suspects that either is causing your symptoms to be worse, follow their instructions to eliminate them and reintroduce them to your diet.
Follow a Low FODMAP Diet
Your healthcare provider might also recommend that you try a low FODMAP diet to reduce your IBS symptoms. FODMAPs are a type of carbohydrate that are hard for your body to digest. If you follow a low FODMAP diet, you avoid foods that contain FODMAPs, such as:
Fruits (especially those with pits), such as apricots, cherries, mango, nectarines, and plums, as well as blackberries, pears, and watermelon
Canned fruit in fruit juice, fruit juice, or dried fruit
Lentils and beans
Certain vegetables, such as artichokes, asparagus, cabbage, cauliflower, mushrooms, garlic, onions, and sugar snap or snow peas
Dairy products, including milk, soft cheeses, yogurt, and ice cream
Foods with wheat and rye
Foods sweetened by honey, high-fructose corn syrup, or sweeteners, such as sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, and maltitol
If your healthcare provider suspects that a low FODMAP diet may help your IBS symptoms, they may recommend that you eliminate all of these foods. If your symptoms improve over a few weeks, they may advise you to slowly add certain ones back in. The purpose of removing foods from your diet and then adding them back in is to identify what foods trigger your IBS. Even if your IBS is exacerbated by FODMAPs, you may be able to eat some foods with them.
Reduce Your Stress
In treating IBS, it’s critically important to pay attention to your stress and find ways to manage it. Stress can increase your symptom severity, as well as cause flare-ups, or times in which your IBS is more severe than others.
A range of stress management techniques have been shown to reduce IBS symptoms and improve quality of life, including:
Try Manageable Exercise
Being physically active is an important part of self-care—especially for people with IBS. Exercise can improve IBS symptoms and help you feel better, physically and mentally. A 2015 study found that when participants with IBS increased their physical activity over a five-year time span, their IBS symptoms and mental health improved. Another study found that both a low FODMAP diet and yoga helped reduce participants’ gastrointestinal symptoms.
In particular, yoga may be especially beneficial for helping to reduce the pain, severity, and anxiety associated with IBS, but more research is needed. Specifically, yoga programs that include moving through postures, meditation, and regulated breathing may be more helpful than physical activity on its own.
As with any physical activity, it’s important to pay close attention to how your body feels—and this is especially important if your IBS is causing you pain or discomfort while you’re exercising.
If you’re experiencing pain or discomfort, only move in ways that feel okay for your body. Trying modifications, such as chair yoga, or slowing down by going on walks rather than runs, for example, may help you ease into a regular physical activity regimen without overexerting your body.
Take Peppermint Oil Capsules
Peppermint oil, which is taken from the leaves and flowers of the peppermint plant, has been used to treat digestive disorders since the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. Peppermint oil has been shown to relax your muscles, reduce inflammation, and alleviate psychological distress. Research on the benefits of peppermint oil is limited, but shows that capsules of the oil can relieve IBS symptoms, specifically pain. It’s important to take the capsules separately from antacids, which can break down the coating and create heartburn. Otherwise, peppermint oil is safe, with very limited adverse side effects found in research.
Limitations of Self-Care
It’s important to remember that there’s no magic solution for IBS, and self-care alone may not be enough to manage your symptoms. We’re still learning what might cause it and symptom management can be challenging.
Most healthcare providers use a variety of methods to treat each person’s IBS. Medications are often used if your body isn’t responding entirely to self-care methods. In addition, if stress management isn’t enough, your healthcare provider may suggest more intensive mental health treatment, such as therapy or medication.
It’s important to keep track of how you’re feeling and work with your healthcare provider to determine a new treatment plan if you need to.
A Quick Review
IBS is a common gastrointestinal disease that can cause diarrhea, constipation, and other painful or uncomfortable symptoms. Self-care techniques including dietary changes, physical activity, supplements, and stress management can be used in conjunction with medical treatment to help alleviate symptoms. Talk to your healthcare provider about your options and keep track of the strategies that work for you.
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