An introduction to IBS and bloating
Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a common digestive condition which unfortunately has a long list of symptoms attached to it.
A number of different factors are thought to contribute to IBS, including certain trigger foods in some cases, heightened gut sensitivity, psychological factors affecting the gut, hormones, and an imbalance of gut bacteria. So after eating certain foods, or in a stressful situation or perhaps for reasons that you don’t quite understand, people with IBS can find that they end up feeling quite bloated and uncomfortable.
Treating bloating associated with IBS often involves a multidisciplinary approach – a number of diet and lifestyle changes, plus home and herbal remedies can often help.
What is IBS?
IBS is a functional gut disorder characterised by a collection of symptoms affecting the digestive system. Unfortunately, there are no specific tests to determine whether or not someone has IBS, this diagnosis is often made after ruling out other conditions and on assessment of one’s symptoms. On examination, strangely, no physical abnormalities can be found in IBS, the structural and biochemical environment of the gut remains unchanged, yet symptoms are apparent.
The symptoms that can present themselves in cases of IBS can vary across individuals, but some common symptoms include: stomach pain, constipation, diarrhoea, bloating and flatulence. Some people find that their symptoms are persistent, whilst others only experience occasional flare ups. These flare ups may be more likely after certain conditions, for example after certain foods, which means in some cases they may be slightly easier to manage. For others, they find there isn’t such an obvious pattern which can be frustrating.
How can IBS cause bloating?
Bloating is one of the most common symptoms of IBS, but unsurprisingly it can be embarrassing and debilitating. There are a number of theories as to why IBS is thought to give rise to bloating:
Constipation dominant IBS – As the symptoms of IBS vary so much between people, in some cases diarrhoea is more dominant, whereas for other people, a sluggish bowel and constipation is more problematic. With a slow moving gut, bloating often isn’t far away – physically, there is more of a build up which leaves the gut feeling fuller and more uncomfortable, but also as waste travels through the gut more slowly, it is subject to further fermentation by the natural bacteria in our gut, which produces gas. Flatulence and bloating often go hand in hand too.
Food triggers – If certain foods are causing a flare up in your symptoms, bloating could be an associated side effect. In food intolerances such as with dairy, the affected person may lack necessary enzymes to break down a specific component of that food (in this case, lactase). If undigested food isn’t properly broken down and absorbed, it can travel partially undigested into the large intestine where it becomes subject to fermentation by bacteria. This is why flatulence is often also a common side effect.
Irregular bowel movements – In many cases, IBS is associated with irregular bowel movements. This may involve diarrhoea (which may or may not coincide with stress or anxiety), or in other cases, a slow moving gut and constipation. Unfortunately in both cases, bloating can be problematic. Constipation can give rise to excess, unwanted fermentation as food moves too slowly through the digestive tract, or in cases of diarrhoea, gas can become trapped or food can become subject to fermentation too soon, both of which can contribute to bloating.
An imbalance in gut bacteria – Although it isn’t always acknowledged, an imbalance in gut bacteria, or dysbiosis, is thought to have a part to play in many cases of IBS. Anaerobic bacteria which reside in our gut survive without oxygen and instead partake in a process called fermentation to survive. If the balance of bacteria is off, we may react more adversely to certain foods, and unfavourable symptoms such as bloating are thought to crop up.
What can I try at home to help manage IBS?
There are some simple steps you can take at home to try and manage bloating as a result of IBS.
- Drink enough water – Drinking enough water is important to ensure your gut is moving along nicely. Now, this is especially important if you suffer from constipation-dominant IBS but, if stools are looser, don’t assume drinking more water will make the problem worse. It certainly won’t and instead will help to ensure you stay hydrated which is vital. Aim to drink at least 1.5l of plain, still water daily
- Manage stress – Stress and IBS often come hand in hand so evaluating what might be causing you unnecessary stress and addressing it accordingly can be very helpful. Make some lists and take control. Employ the help from close friends or family if you need to talk things out and consider trying some relaxation techniques in the comfort of your own home such as meditation or controlled breathing.
How can natural remedies help?
There are some natural remedies which can help manage some of the symptoms of IBS.
Can my doctor help?
If your IBS symptoms are severe, affecting your day to day life or if home and herbal remedies aren’t helping, it might be time to visit your doctor or pharmacist. They can prescribe medication which may be useful in the short-term.