Everything you need to know about living well with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Here, we provide an IBS explanation and answer questions such as, ‘what is irritable bowel syndrome?’, ‘what causes irritable bowel syndrome?’, and ‘what are the symptoms of IBS?’. We explore irritable bowel syndrome treatments that are available and what daily life is like for people living with IBS.
Remember, you are not alone, and there are many sources of IBS support available to you. If you are concerned about any of the symptoms of IBS or information you read here, please consult your GP. This guide to IBS is not intended to be taken as medical advice.
Irritable bowel syndrome is a condition affecting the bowel or gut, which is part of the digestive system. There is no cure, and it’s not clear what causes IBS, but there are some IBS treatment options available.
Around 10-20% of people in the UK have IBS, and anyone can develop the condition. It is most commonly diagnosed around the age of 20-30, but it may begin in childhood. Some people are much older when they are first diagnosed, and their IBS symptoms may have just begun, or may have been present for some time but much less severe. Women are twice as likely to receive an IBS diagnosis compared to men.
The severity of irritable bowel syndrome symptoms varies from person to person, and each person will have a unique experience of the condition.
Some people find that certain foods are also irritable bowel syndrome triggers, such as fatty or sugary foods, and we talk more about this later.
Everyone experiences IBS differently, but there are common IBS symptoms that many people experience. There are a few different types of IBS, and the type a person has is determined by their symptoms. Living with irritable bowel syndrome can be difficult, and some people may be more severely affected than others, finding that IBS affects their life in more ways.
IBS symptoms often include:
• Pain in the guts
• Alternative diarrhoea and constipation
• Trapped wind
• Needing to burp frequently
• Excessive or smelly flatulence
• Urgent need to poo or having to strain to poo
• Leaking poo when passing wind
• Tiredness, insomnia, fatigue
• Muscle and joint pain
• Bladder problems
• Stress, anxiety or depression
The latter may occur alongside the condition, and sometimes it is difficult to tell if emotional or mental health problems are an irritable bowel syndrome trigger, or a symptom of IBS.
Symptoms of IBS may get worse at certain times, for example:
• If you are stressed, anxious or depressed
• If you are experiencing emotional upset or trauma
• If you are ill with other health conditions
• If you are taking medications for other health conditions
IBS is not ‘all in the mind’ but many people report that there is a link between how they are feeling and their IBS symptoms, and vice versa. Experts also now understand that there is a clear link between the gut and the brain, called the gut-brain axis.
If you think you may have symptoms of IBS, you should visit your GP to discuss these. It may feel embarrassing to talk about bowel movements but it is important to tell your GP in detail about the symptoms you are experiencing. Your GP may diagnose you based on your symptoms, as there is no specific test for irritable bowel syndrome. However, your GP may want to run some blood tests and stool (poo) sample tests to rule out some other conditions such as coeliac disease or inflammatory bowel disease. If you are given a full blood screening, your GP will also be looking for evidence of other issues such as anaemia, thyroid problems and issues with your liver and kidneys. They may also examine you to feel for any swollen areas in your gut.
• Bleeding from the bottom
• Weight loss that cannot be attributed to diet or exercise
• Significant changes in bowel habit (i.e. your normal bowel habits are fine with no symptoms)
• Significant bloating that lasts for long periods or does not go away
If you are given a diagnosis of IBS and develop any of the symptoms listed above, you should revisit your GP. Read more about the symptoms of IBS and diagnosis of IBS
Irritable bowel syndrome cannot be cured and so treatment for IBS usually includes reducing the impact of, and managing the symptoms of, IBS. Some people opt to use IBS treatment medications, many of which are available over the counter and without prescription. Other people choose to change their lifestyle in order to help their IBS symptoms, which may include following a special diet or reducing the intake of foods that seem to be IBS triggers for them.
Other options include natural remedies such as vitamins and minerals, holistic or complementary therapies, and psychological therapies that are designed to alleviate stress and related mood issues, which may help a person deal with their IBS symptoms more positively.
Some people choose to live with their IBS and put up with the symptoms they experience, perhaps because IBS treatments they have tried have not worked, or because they prefer not to take medication. Everyone is affected differently by their IBS. Here, we discuss the treatments for irritable bowel syndrome in more detail.
To reduce constipation or make it easier to poo. There are different types which may either make your poo bulkier so that your bowels can push it out, make it softer or more watery or make bowel movement faster. Read more about laxatives.
To help firm up your poo e.g. loperamide is very commonly used. However, some people find that using this as a treatment for IBS means they then get constipated. Read more about loperamide.
Some people living with IBS may find that their symptoms decrease whilst taking antidepressant tablets. It is unlikely that GPs will prescribe antidepressants to someone who does not experience mood issues alongside their IBS, but for those that do, they may find their mood issues improve as well as their gut symptoms. This is thought to be because antidepressants can positively affect pain receptors, making a person feel less pain, or reducing their anxiety and low mood, which may make their gut issues worse. Read more about antidepressants.
Some people choose to take natural supplements for IBS, such as peppermint oil, which is proven to help some people with IBS symptoms.
Irritable bowel syndrome supplements may suit some people but not others, and some may find that taking certain vitamins and minerals make their gut issues worse.
Other people find that taking minerals such as magnesium helps relieve their IBS symptoms. Many people also take probiotics, which come in various forms and can be bought in yoghurt drinks from the supermarket. These contain good forms of bacteria which may help some people who have an imbalance of bacteria in their gut. However, probiotics do not work for everyone and can actually make some IBS symptoms worse.
It is advisable for a person with IBS to discuss taking natural IBS supplements with their GP before doing so, as some vitamins, minerals and herbal substances can interfere with other medication or health conditions.
The insertion of needles into key points around the body, which may help relieve pain, encourage the gut to have better movement of food waste, and reduce stress. Read more about acupuncture and IBS.
Uses relaxation techniques to deeply relax the body and relieve stress, which may all contribute to IBS symptom relief. Read more about hypnotherapy and IBS.
Some people with IBS also experience anxiety, stress and depression. Research now understands that there is a link between the gut and the brain, and that serotonin is made within the gut, so this connection is not surprising. It may be difficult to ascertain if mood issues occurred before IBS symptoms or vice versa, and really it does not matter which came first. This link suggests that finding ways to reduce stress/anxiety/depression may have a positive effect on a person’s experience of IBS. Therefore, some people benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as an irritable bowel syndrome treatment. Read more about CBT.
Dietary changes may improve IBS symptoms, and we talk about this in more detail in the next section.
IBS is not curable and each person with a diagnosis of IBS will experience it differently, with some people finding it affects their daily life more than others.
IBS sometimes gets worse as a person grows older, but then it can also improve with age, and many people find their condition goes through phases where it is more difficult to cope with, before improving slightly. For example, periods of stress or worry can exacerbate irritable bowel syndrome symptoms. Some women find their IBS worsens during their period or the lead up to menstruating. Diet may also play a big part in a person’s IBS symptoms. So, there are multiple factors that can affect IBS and the feeling of wellbeing a person living with IBS has.
These may present more symptoms, as well as concern about having toileting issues whilst travelling and being unable to get to a toilet, or being in pain whilst away from home. Read more about travelling with IBS.
Some people may find their IBS causes them embarrassment e.g. depending on the type of IBS they have, they may experience flatulence, bloating, urgent diarrhoea, etc and feel embarrassed about having these symptoms around other people. Some people may be embarrassed about showing their distended stomach (e.g. in a swimsuit), having to use public toilets and so on. Others find they have bowel or urinary incontinence due to IBS, which can also create anxiety and embarrassment.
If a person is following a special diet, or avoiding certain foods that are an IBS trigger for them, they may find it difficult to eat out at restaurants and cafes, or eat at other people’s houses. Some people may feel anxious about this, or about eating something that will cause their symptoms to come on. Read more about diet and IBS.
Living with pain, discomfort, stress and anxiety can cause difficulties in relationships, and living with IBS may cause a person distress, irritability and low moods, which may in turn affect their close relationships. Find support for relationship problems.
Healthcare Pro are experts in daily living aids, which are products designed to make everyday tasks easier for people who have mobility difficulties or other health conditions.
If you have difficulties with mobility, using the toilet can become difficult. If you also have irritable bowel syndrome, this may cause you an even greater challenge, and increase anxiety. If this is the case for you, we may have a daily living aid solution to suit your needs
PLEASE NOTE: our Expert Advice Service can only give advice about equipment and products which may help you to live more independently. They cannot give any advice on medications or treatments for symptoms of this condition.
Many people with a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome are able to work but being in employment may present challenges. These can include anxiety about using the toilet, colleagues being aware of a person’s IBS symptoms, having to use the toilet regularly at work, feeling uncomfortable due to symptoms such as pain, bloating or constipation, and missing work due to symptom flare-ups. Some people find IBS affects their morning routine due to symptoms, or that eating at work affects their gut during the day. It may be advisable to discuss with your employer if your IBS is affecting your work life. Read more about IBS and employment.
IBS is a really common condition. If you have IBS, there are many people in a similar situation, but each person will experience the condition differently. Many people are able to live a full life with irritable bowel syndrome but it can affect a person’s daily life to varying degrees. There are treatments for irritable bowel syndrome, in the form of over the counter medications and self-care, and these may provide relief. Some people also benefit from changing their lifestyle, and adopting an IBS diet suited to their needs, removing foods and drinks that are triggers for IBS.
If you are looking for further information, or support for IBS, we have listed some sources of IBS help below.
About IBS – a site run by the US charity International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, which features lots of information about all aspects of living with IBS including IBS treatments, IBS diet, IBS support, and much more
Bladder & Bowel Community – a charity providing advice and information on bladder and bowel conditions, including IBS, and offering a free ‘Just can’t wait card’ for urgent toilet access
Bladder and Bowel UK – a charity providing online resources and information about bowel and bladder issues, including content on constipation, incontinence, fluid intake, and other practical matters
Guts UK – a UK charity for people with gut-related conditions such as IBS, with details about what causes IBS and treatments for IBS
NHS – provides official medical information on irritable bowel syndrome and related conditions
The British Dietetic Association – advice and information on IBS and diet, including self-care, lifestyle advice and information on foods and drinks to eat or reduce intake of
The IBS Network – a charity that provides advice and information on living with irritable bowel syndrome, with online information and support groups
Although we always try to explain things as simply and as clearly as possible, sometimes it’s necessary to use the correct medical terminology. Medical terms are often known for being tricky to pronounce and if you’re not an expert in the subject, they can also be a little difficult to understand. Below, we’ve put together a list of terms used on this page along with a brief explanation of what they mean to help make your understanding of IBS as straightforward as possible.
– an auto-immune disease affecting the digestive system, where the body reacts to gluten found in wheat, barley and rye, and damages the small intestine’s lining
– the gastrointestinal tract, which includes all the organs required for moving food through the body, using its nutrients and excreting it as waste
– a common stomach bug that may be viral or bacterial and causes diarrhoea
– the link between the gut and the brain, which is thought to involve chemicals and neurotransmitters that travel backwards and forwards along pathways between the brain and the gut (bowel)
Inflammatory bowel disease
– a group of conditions such as Crohn’s disease and colitis, caused by inflammation in the gut or digestive system