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What is IBS and what causes it?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) - also known as spastic colon - is a syndrome or a collection of symptoms rather than a disease in itself. It is a functional disorder in which the digestive system does not function correctly leading to symptoms like abdominal pain, discomfort, cramping, gas, bloating constipation or diarrhoea.

IBS affects the large intestine or the colon and may be caused due to:

  • an infection

  • food sensitivity

  • medication

  • stress

  • a reaction to a traumatic life event

  • genetics

Although, there is no known cure for IBS, its symptoms can be controlled and relieved through medicines and complementary therapies.

Illnesses commonly misdiagnosed as IBS

Sometimes the symptoms of IBS can mimic another serious disorder and, without closer attention, a simple oversight can become a more significant health problem. If your symptoms manifest suddenly or inconsistently, be sure to talk to your doctor in case there are other possible diagnoses, such as:

  • Food allergy or intolerance. Adverse reactions to certain foods are quite common, and they can appear at any stage of life. Be sure to rule this out before beginning treatment for IBS — a simple dietary change can save you months of stress and discomfort.

  • Coeliac disease. An intolerance for gluten can incite an autoimmune response which can cause mild to severe gastrointestinal distress. Luckily, removing gluten from the diet can generally resolve the discomfort and control the disease.

  • Colon cancer. Although it’s much rarer than IBS, fears of colon cancer are not uncommon for those who live with chronic bowel issues. Most gastrointestinal symptoms do not point to cancer, but blood in the stool, significant weight loss, and sudden, extreme pain in the middle of the night are causes for concern.

  • Ovarian cancer. Fatigue, bloating, constipation and feeling full after eating small amounts can be common in IBS, but they could also be early warning signs of ovarian cancer. Since this type of cancer isn’t very common, your doctor may not suspect it after an initial examination.

  • Endometriosis. Pelvic pain is more common than bowel issues in endometriosis, but some women experience various digestive symptoms with the disease.

  • Inflammatory bowel disease. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis can share some symptoms with IBS, but a colonoscopy will reveal signs of inflammation in the digestive tract (IBS won’t show up on this sort of diagnostic test).

Gastrointestinal symptoms can point to another illness, or less commonly, another disorder occurring simultaneously. Not only is this a particularly unfair situation, but it can complicate diagnosis and treatment, especially if the possibility is ignored for a long time. It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about the chances of a separate illness alongside your IBS, just to eliminate other issues.

Dietary triggers for IBS constipation

Some foods can make IBS-related constipation worse, including:

  • Breads and cereals made with refined (not whole) grains

  • Processed foods such as chips and cookies

  • Coffee, carbonated drinks, and alcohol

  • High-protein diets

  • Dairy products, especially cheese

Better diet choices for constipation:

  • Gradually boost your fiber intake by 2 to 3 grams per day until you're eating 25 (for women) or 38 (for men) grams per day. Good sources include whole-grain bread and cereals, beans, fruits, and vegetables.

  • Eat a moderate amount of foods that are higher in the sugar substitute sorbitol, such as dried plums and prune juice.

  • Drink plenty of plain water every day.

  • Try ground flaxseed. You can sprinkle it on salads and cooked vegetables.

Dietary triggers for IBS diarrhoea

Foods that can make IBS-related diarrhoea worse for some people include:

  • Too much fibre, especially the insoluble kind you get in the skin of fruits and vegetables

  • Food and drinks with chocolate, alcohol, caffeine, fructose or sorbitol

  • Carbonated drinks

  • Large meals

  • Fried and fatty foods

  • Dairy products, especially in people who can’t digest the milk sugar lactose (known as lactose intolerance)

  • Foods with wheat for people who are allergic to or have a bad reaction to gluten

Better dietary choices for diarrhoea:

  • Eat a moderate amount of soluble fibre. It adds bulk to your stools. Good sources are whole wheat breads, oats, barley, brown rice, whole-grain pasta, the flesh of fruit (not the skin) and dried fruits.

  • Don't eat foods at opposite temperatures, such as ice-cold water and steaming hot soup, in the same meal.

  • Stay away from broccoli, onions and cabbage. They cause gas, which can make you feel worse.

  • Eat smaller portions.

  • Drink water an hour before or after meals, not while you eat.

  • Talk to your doctor or a dietitian if you think you may have a wheat allergy.

  • To ease symptoms of bloating and gas, try to avoid gassy foods such as beans, Brussels sprouts, wheat germ, raisins and celery.


There are many types of supplements for symptom management of IBS that are very effective. In particular, prebiotic soluble fibre supplements, herbs (such as peppermint and fennel) that have beneficial effects on the gastrointestinal tract, heat therapy, probiotics, calcium and/or magnesium, and digestive enzymes are all of proven benefit. Results are usually felt very quickly - sometimes even immediately.

Most reputable supplements for irritable bowel syndrome, particularly medical foods for IBS, are very safe and carry little to no risk of side effects. They're usually inexpensive as well. In terms of risks versus benefits, supplements are a significantly better, safer and likely more effective option than IBS prescription medications.

How can reflexology help IBS and digestive issues?

Reflexology is both an ancient science and a modern day complementary therapy. Reflexology works on the principle that there are reflexes in the feet and hands relative to all organs, functions and parts of the human body. These reflexes are connected through a system of energy and nerve supply within the body, which can become congested or blocked causing the body to function less effectively. Reflexologists manually stimulate these reflexes to relax tension and direct the free flow of vital energy throughout the body.

Reflexologists believe that strong emotions, anxiety and stress can impair the normal regulation of the autonomic nervous system, causing an adverse effect on those bowel functions normally carried out automatically. Reflexology aims to relax retained tension in the body’s tissues and organs, and balance metabolism in those key organs involved in digestion, namely the stomach, liver, gall bladder, pancreas, small intestine and colon.

Reflexology is said to provide natural relief from many everyday health conditions through its ability to relax mental and physical tension in the body, improve general circulation and nerve supply, boost the immune system, encourage the elimination of the body’s harmful wastes and toxins, and restore a sense of harmony to the body. Reflexology sessions are also extremely relaxing, and most clients say that they help improve both their mental and physical health. Just reducing stress and improving mood might help people resist the worst symptoms of IBS and cope with it better when they do suffer from a bout.

Learn about easing your symptoms

We’d be delighted to discuss your digestive concerns so do get in touch if you would like our help.