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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) health centre

Self-help for irritable bowel syndrome

BMJ Group Medical Reference

Introduction

This information is for people who have irritable bowel syndrome. It tells you about some of the things you can do yourself, if you have irritable bowel syndrome.

You can take steps to control your symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Up to three-quarters of people with IBS rely on self-care instead of going to the doctor. [20]

We haven't looked at the research on many of these treatments in as much detail as we have for other treatments (see Our method), so we can't be sure that they work. But they may be worth trying.

There are a number of ways you can try to control your IBS.

Dealing with stress

If you have IBS, feeling tense, troubled, or angry can affect muscles in your bowels. [7] Lots of people get stomach cramps or 'butterflies' when they are nervous or upset. But if you have IBS, your bowels can be extra sensitive to even slight anxiety or stress.

Stress can also make you worry more about sensations from your bowels. For more information on how stress affects your bowels, see Your brain and your bowels.

Keeping a diary of your symptoms may help you recognise the things that make you feel stressed and bring on your symptoms. [76] You could include:

  • The date and time

  • The symptoms and how bad they are

  • Anything in your life which might be making you feel bad

  • Your emotions (for example, you may feel angry or anxious)

  • Your thoughts (for example, you may think you can't do anything about what's happening).

This diary may help you recognise the triggers that bring on your symptoms. When you come across the same triggers in future, you can use techniques for dealing with stress.

Learning to deal with stress is an important part of treatment for irritable bowel syndrome. Talking treatments, such as cognitive behaviour therapy and hypnotherapy, may help if anxiety is making your bowel symptoms worse. And there are other techniques you can try to reduce your stress levels and symptoms of IBS. Here are some examples:

Changing your diet

Lots of people believe that something in their diet is responsible for their IBS. But there hasn't been any research showing that what you eat causes IBS.

A small number of people do have a food intolerance. This means their bowels don't react well to a particular food. Milk, wheat, and eggs are foods that people often say make IBS worse. [77]

About 1 in 10 people with IBS have lactose intolerance. [7] Lactose intolerance means your can't easily digest dairy foods like milk and cheese. Unfortunately, not eating foods containing lactose doesn't often cure IBS.

Dairy products, bread, high-fat foods and rich or spicy foods may trigger symptoms in some people. You could try not eating a particular food if you think it's giving you symptoms. You will need to do this for at least one month to see if it makes a difference. [78] Avoiding particular foods can make your life difficult, and it's easy to miss out on important nutrients. If you're following a stricter diet (say, excluding a lot of foods at once) it's best to do this under the supervision of a dietitian. Diets that cut out some foods are more likely to work for people who have diarrhoea as their main symptom. [77]

Last Updated: March 13, 2013
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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