What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) & how do I manage the condition?

What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) & how do I manage the condition?

07 Sep 2021

Around one in five Australians experience irritable bowel syndrome or IBS2 (Victoria Department of Health). It’s a common but uncomfortable gastrointestinal disorder. People living with IBS get excessive gas, abdominal pain and cramps. It is a chronic condition that can affect individuals for extended periods of time, sometimes for months or years.

While IBS is common and most people can continue living with it, it can be very uncomfortable. Making changes to our diets or taking probiotics are effective ways to treat IBS or reduce its severity (1, 2).

Symptoms of IBS

Probiotics for IBS

Those living with IBS may experience many signs and symptoms that can vary from person to person. Here are some of the possible symptoms that you may experience if you have IBS (1, 2):

  • Abdominal pain or cramping (related to bowel movement and is often be relieved by passing wind or moving stool)
  • Changes in the appearance of stool
  • Changes in how often you have bowel movement
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Alternating diarrhoea and constipation
  • The presence of mucus in your stool
  • Nausea

Types of IBS

There are three main categories of IBS which include (2):

Constipation predominant

This type of IBS is characterised by alternating constipation and normal stools. Eating is usually a trigger for abdominal cramps and pain.

Diarrhoea predominant

People who have this kind of IBS tend to experience diarrhoea after eating or as soon as they wake up in the morning.


Those in this category would likely alternate between experiencing constipation and diarrhoea.

Causes of IBS

The exact cause of IBS is unknown but there are certain factors that have been found to trigger IBS (1, 2). These include:

Muscle contractions in the intestine

When food moves through the intestine, layers of muscles that line the intestine will contract. When these muscles contract for too long or too intensely, it causes gas, bloating, and diarrhea (1). In contrast, when these muscles contract too weakly and for too short a time, they slow the passage of food leading to constipation.

Nervous system

Abnormal or poorly coordinated signals from nerves within your digestive system may cause some discomfort or abdominal pain (1). This happens because the body may tend to overreact due to the stomach and brain’s compromised channels of communication.


Your risk of developing IBS is higher when you get infected by a virus or bacteria (2). Even when the infection cures, IBS may still persist. This might be due to a residual imbalance of good and bad bacteria in your gut.


Stressors from our day-to-day living, like work and relationship stress, may be enough to trigger IBS (1, 2).

Gut microbes

Research has indicated that the balance of bacteria found in people with IBS are different from those without (2). This balance of good and bad bacteria can be restored, and then maintained by taking probiotics for IBS.

Food intolerance

Some people have trouble digesting certain types of foods more than others. This inefficiency in their digestive systems sometimes causes IBS (1, 2). It is commonly seen in individuals with lactose intolerance who experience IBS after they consume dairy products (2).


Certain medications like antibiotics lead to IBS as they can kill off good bacteria. This results in an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in your gut (8).

When to see a doctor

IBS can sometimes mask more severe health conditions or be a symptom in itself. It is important to see your doctor if you present with these signs and  symptoms (1):

  • Severe weight loss
  • Diarrhea at night
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Iron deficiency or anemia
  • Vomiting without reason
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Persistent abdominal pain that isn’t caused by gas or bowel movement

How is IBS diagnosed?

Your doctor can identify if you have IBS by asking a few questions. After which, you will likely undergo a test called ROME IV which can accurately diagnose IBS.

If you have a family history of colon cancer or issues with bowel movement, or if your doctor suspects underlying conditions, you may be required to undergo additional tests.

How to manage IBS

If you have IBS, consider these lifestyle changes to better manage and treat your condition (2,3,4) :

Know your food triggers

Certain kinds of food may trigger IBS (4). What food can trigger IBS differs from person to person. While the cause of why certain foods may trigger IBS is unknown, it helps to pay attention to what foods exacerbate your IBS symptoms so that you can avoid them (2).

Healthy diet

Adding more fibre to your diet can help ease overall symptoms and constipation for those with IBS (4). However, some fibres are considered gas-producing foods and can cause more distress for IBS sufferers. Such foods include broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and cucumber.


Water helps in breaking down food and softening of stools. Staying constantly hydrated throughout the day can help reduce your risk of IBS (4).

Manage stress

While stress doesn’t necessarily cause IBS, it can make it worse (3). Stress is understood to be related to colon spasms (3). IBS may also occur due to stress that affects the immune system (9). Practicing meditation or mindfulness can help alleviate stress.

Probiotics for IBS

Probiotics and IBS share a connection. Studies have shown that consuming probiotics for IBS can reduce the pain and severity of symptoms (5, 6). Examples of probiotics that can be added into your diet are yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, tempeh, kimchi, sourdough bread and some cheeses (7).

Fortunately, changes in our diet and lifestyle can help us manage the symptoms and inconveniences of IBS. Simple changes like stress management and taking probiotics for IBS can also help alleviate its symptoms. With proper management and understanding of the condition, we can live healthy and fulfilling lives.  

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  1. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (2020), Retrieved August 14, 2021 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20360016
  2. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (2015), Retrieved August 14, 2021 from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs
  3. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (2020), Retrieved August 14, 2021 from https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs
  4. A Guide to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (n.a.), Retrieved August 14, 2021 from https://dietitiansaustralia.org.au/smart-eating-for-you/smart-eating-fast-facts/medical/a-guide-to-irritable-bowel-syndrome/
  5. Heat-inactivated Bifidobacterium bifidum MIMBb75 (SYN-HI-001) in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome: a multicentre, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial (2020), Retrieved August 14, 2021 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32277872/
  6. Effectiveness of probiotics in irritable bowel syndrome: Updated systematic review with meta-analysis (2015), Retrieved August 14, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4356930/
  7. How to Get More Probiotics (2021), Retrieved August 14, 2021 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-to-get-more-probiotics
  8. Probiotics (n.a.), Retrieved August 14, 2021 from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/14598-probiotics
  9. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Treatments (n.a.), Retrieved August 23, 2021 from https://www.anxietyaustralia.com.au/resources/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs-stress-and-anxiety/