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Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Gastrointestinal issues such as bloating, cramping, loose bowel movements and constipation are something to just put up with. For many the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome are a disruptive part of daily life. Irritable bowel syndrome otherwise known as IBS is a common condition which affects approximately 1 in 7 New Zealanders. It’s characterised by a group of uncomfortable abdominal and intestinal symptoms; however, the majority of people will not seek help for IBS. In this article we will look at what IBS is, the symptoms, the triggers, and how to manage the condition.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

IBS is a chronic gastrointestinal condition that affects the stomach and intestines. IBS is not the same as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), it does not cause inflammation or damage to the intestinal lining. While IBS is usually harmless, the symptoms can be severe in intensity, and may last from weeks to months at a time. It can therefore be a frustrating condition to live with.

IBS is characterised by a group of symptoms that occur together. These symptoms can range from mild to severe. The symptoms of IBS tend to come and go over time, sometimes they have specific triggers. Some of the most common symptoms of IBS are:

  • Bloating and gas,
  • abdominal cramping,
  • diarrhoea,
  • constipation,
  • alternating periods of diarrhoea and constipation,
  • mucus in stool,
  • feeling that you aren’t finished with a bowel movement when you are,
  • bloated belly that sticks out,
  • food intolerances,
  • the need to urinate often.

Some symptoms unrelated to the gastrointestinal tract that may be associated with IBS are:

  • headaches,
  • painful periods,
  • fatigue or tiredness,
  • anxiety,
  • stress,
  • depression.

While the exact cause of IBS is unknown, it is known that the symptoms of IBS can be triggered by a variety of diet and lifestyle factors. Spikes in stress and anxiety levels can be followed by a flare up of IBS symptoms or are said to make IBS symptoms worse.

Often people with IBS will find that certain foods and beverages are triggers for their IBS symptoms. Common dietary triggers include:

  • wheat,
  • dairy products,
  • caffeine,
  • alcohol,
  • spicy foods,
  • beans,
  • citrus fruits,
  • cabbage,
  • fatty foods,
  • fizzy drinks,
  • sugar substitutes.

While there is no cure for IBS, there are ways to manage the condition and improve quality of life. Because IBS can be trigger by many things it’s important to find out what your triggers are and make lifestyle and diet changes.

Dietary Changes

  • Food diary: keep track of your symptoms and the foods you are eating to help identify trigger foods, and making changes accordingly,
  • Fibre rich diet: eating high-fibre foods like whole grain breads, seeds, nuts, and cereals. Fibre supplements can help you increase your intake,
  • Low-FODMAP Diet: is a 3 step diet used to help manage the symptoms of IBS through learning what triggers your IBS symptoms. Learn More


Stress Management

  • Techniques like mindfulness, deep breathing, meditation, and hypnotherapy may help reduce stress and improve IBS symptoms.


Lifestyle Adjustments

  • Regular exercise, adequate sleep, quitting smoking, and limiting caffeine consumption are all lifestyle changes that may help reduce IBS symptoms.



  • Foods and beverages containing probiotics, or probiotic supplements are often recommended for people with digestive problems.



  • Over-the-counter medicines are available to relieve some symptoms of IBS including constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, and bowel cramps.

If your symptoms persist, don’t improve or are a common occurrence you should see your healthcare provider for a check-up. You should also see a healthcare professional immediately if you experience sudden changes or symptoms such as:

  • Rectal bleeding,
  • weight loss,
  • pain that is not relieved by passing gas or a bowel movement,
  • waking from sleep with pain or the need to empty your bowel,
  • decreased appetite or vomiting,
  • symptoms beginning after the age of 50 years old,
  • family history of gastrointestinal cancer,
  • abdominal lump or mass.


These symptoms could indicate a more serious condition and your healthcare professional will be able to organise the appropriate tests.

IBS has many symptoms and can affect people in a variety of ways. The symptoms of bloating, gas, abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, and constipation make it difficult to live a normal life. While there is no cure, making dietary and lifestyle changes may help to reduce the symptoms, and avoid triggers. It is important to remember that many conditions share the symptoms of IBS and if you are concerned you should speak with a healthcare professional.

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