Understanding and Managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Closeup view of woman with illustration of abdominal organs on her belly against white background



Do you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or do you know someone who does?


Statistically speaking, it is very likely that you or a loved one do – even if you have never been diagnosed with it. That is because an estimated 5 to 7.5 million Canadians live with IBS and its painful symptoms. However, despite 13-20% of our population having IBS, the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research says that only 40% of Canadians suffering from it will seek medical help.


So, what exactly is IBS and what can you do if you have it? Irritable bowel syndrome is a painful functional disorder that is incredibly common. While it is not always pleasant, most people with IBS live very fulfilling lives and can manage their IBS pain and discomfort primarily on their own.


If you, your spouse, or your child has recently been diagnosed with IBS, try not to fret! We offer everything you need to understand and manage IBS. Read on for more information about what IBS is, the symptoms and causes, as well as how to treat it with medicine and lifestyle adjustments.



What is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (or IBS for short) is a common, chronic, and functional disorder that impacts the gastrointestinal tract of people of all ages. It most commonly affects women under 50 years of age, but the disorder’s onset can occur unexpectedly at any point in one’s life.


While the digestive system of people living with IBS is anatomically the same as people without IBS, their intestines function differently. Therefore, IBS is considered a functional disorder.


With IBS, the intestines spasm rather than contracting and relaxing at regular and predictable intervals. These spasms are painful and disrupt food movement, causing either constipation or diarrhea. The movement of gas and fluid is also impacted. In addition, people who have IBS often have highly sensitive nerve endings in their digestive tract, which can result in discomfort, swelling, and bloating.



IBS Symptoms

IBS symptoms are unique to the person and can be experienced with varying frequency and intensity. However, the most common IBS symptoms are known as the "ABCDs of IBS." The ABCDs of IBS include:


  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea


IBS is often very unpredictable, which can cause a high amount of anxiety and impact an individual’s day to day. It is common for people living with IBS to have varying combinations of the symptoms above, with one being more dominant and consistent than the others. Stool consistency can also change even within the same day.


The intensity of the pain and discomfort also varies from day to day and person to person. For example, pain from IBS can be:


  • Sharp, but resolve quickly
  • Occasional or frequent
  • Ongoing or episodic


Symptoms often present themselves shortly after a meal is consumed and can last several hours. There is often intense relief of discomfort following a bowel movement, belch, or gas passing. However, many people also report that they still experience mild pain following the opportunity to eliminate stool or gas.


Other reported experiences of IBS include:


  • Pelvic pain
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Back pain
  • Migraine headaches
  • Discomfort during sexual intercourse


When to see a doctor about suspected IBS symptoms?


It is always a good idea to see a doctor if you experience pain and discomfort, particularly if your symptoms impact your ability to work or enjoy your life.


There are several symptoms that you absolutely should not ignore, including:


  • Persistent change in bowel habits
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Diarrhea throughout the night
  • Vomiting
  • Significant or unexpected weight loss
  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Abdominal pain not resolved by passing a bowel movement or gas


These symptoms above may indicate more serious conditions and should, therefore, be investigated by your family doctor at your earliest opportunity.   



What Causes IBS?

Research has not yet confirmed the exact causes of IBS, but there are a variety of factors suspected of playing a role, including:


  • Issues with nerves in the digestive tract (neurological hypersensitivity)
  • Irregular intestinal contractions
  • Severe infection or bacterial overgrowth in the intestines
  • Gut microbes in the intestines
  • Physical or emotional stress
  • Chronic alcohol abuse
  • Food allergies or sensitivities
  • Poor overall nutrition
  • Pattern or amount of physical exercise
  • GI secretion abnormalities


Studies on each are ongoing as researchers remain dedicated to learning more about what enhances and suppresses IBS symptoms. Currently, IBS is considered a chronic condition that does not yet have a cure. Luckily though, there are many ways to manage IBS with medical and lifestyle-related adjustments.


Examples of high fiber foods



How to Treat IBS With Lifestyle Adjustments

Since IBS symptoms are most often triggered by certain foods and physical and emotional stressors, IBS is often managed primarily by the person diagnosed with the disorder. Lifestyle adjustments are related to food, water, exercise, and stress. Therefore, people who live with IBS are encouraged to:


  • Keep a food journal and track which foods triggered IBS symptoms most
  • Avoid foods that contain gluten
  • Avoid high-gas foods and beverages (such as carbonated drinks)
  • Reduce intake of “FODMAP foods” (also known as a low FODMAP diet)
  • Drink plenty of fluids each day
  • Consume high-fiber foods
  • Reduce stress
  • Prioritize sleep


While these lifestyle changes may not be easy, they can really make a difference and significantly improve your quality of life once they become part of your regular habits and routines.


Remember that you also do not need to navigate these changes alone. Speak with your family doctor or local pharmacist if you feel overwhelmed about where to start or if you would simply like some advice or support at any stage of your IBS journey.



What Does Low FODMAP Diet for IBS Mean?

A low FODMAP diet is a temporary diet that helps you identify IBS trigger foods for your or your loved one. A low FODMAP diet is, unfortunately, quite restrictive, and difficult to maintain for many people when they try to do it independently. For that reason, medical professionals often recommend working with your doctor, dietician, or pharmacist to complete a two-to-six-week FODMAP elimination diet. After that, you can introduce foods back in slowly to see which ones cause the most severe IBS symptoms for you.


FODMAP foods include:


  • Dairy milk, ice cream, and yogurt
  • Wheat-based foods like bread, crackers, and cereals
  • Lentils and beans
  • Onions, garlic, artichokes, and asparagus
  • Apples, pears, peaches, and cherries


On the other hand, low FODMAP foods include:


  • Meat and eggs
  • Some cheeses like brie and feta
  • Non-dairy milk like almond milk
  • Rice, oats, and quinoa
  • Potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, and cucumber
  • Strawberries, grapes, oranges, pineapple, and blueberries


Always try to focus on what you can have versus what you need to remove from your diet. Keeping a positive attitude and staying focused on your long-term goal of feeling better will go a long way.



Types of Medications That May Help Treat Symptoms of IBS

In addition to lifestyle changes, there are also many medicinal interventions that can help with IBS pain, diarrhea, and constipation, including:


  • Laxatives
  • Fibre supplements
  • Anti-diarrheal medicines
  • Anticholinergic drugs
  • Pain medications
  • Antidepressants (which can help increase control of intestines)


Talk to your family doctor and local pharmacist about specific over-the-counter and prescription medications that can help treat your/your loved one's IBS.




In conclusion, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a very common, functional disorder that affects the gastrointestinal system of 13-20% of Canadians. IBS is most common in women, but it can affect anyone at any stage of life.


IBS causes the intestines to spasm rather than optimally functioning with a predictable pattern of contracting and relaxing. The irregular intestinal contractions present in patients with IBS impact the way that food, fluids, and gases move through the system. These irregular spasms cause discomfort, pain, gas, and bloating.


Symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea (known as the ABCDs of IBS), which can vary in intensity and frequency. The causes of IBS remain unknown, but it appears that intestinal contractions, stress, and lifestyle choices with diet and exercise play a significant role.


Woman catching her breath after exercising outside


Luckily, IBS symptoms can be managed by avoiding trigger foods, eating a low FODMAP diet, reducing stress, drinking fluids, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. In addition, there are also many over the counter and prescription medications to help manage pain and discomfort associated with IBS.


Most importantly, living a very full life with IBS is possible! Remember that you do not need to navigate your IBS journey alone. There is a wonderful support network ready to help you manage a new IBS diagnosis or stick with the lifestyle changes you adopt. While it will not always be easy, if you persevere, you can nurture your digestive system and live your life with less pain and discomfort. 


Let Cook’s Pharmacy Help You Manage IBS!


Have you recently been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome? Are you struggling with lifestyle adjustments or require over-the-counter medications to treat IBS pain? Then Cook's Pharmacy is here to help!


Our team of friendly and patient pharmacists in Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge, North Dumfries, and Wellesley are very knowledgeable about helping people with IBS find relief through prescription and non-prescription solutions. Reach out to us to get started!



Any medical or pharmaceutical information on this site is provided as an information resource only and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. This information does not create any patient-pharmacist relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment.


Please consult your healthcare provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition.


Cook’s Pharmacy and its subsidiaries expressly disclaim responsibility and shall have no liability, for any damages, loss, injury, or liability whatsoever suffered as a result of your reliance on the information contained in this site.




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