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If you have been recently diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) then you’re well aware of how embarrassing it can be. Its bodily functions, like stomach cramps and diarrhea, can definitely feel uncomfortable when it comes to asking questions about what’s happening with your body and how best to deal with your symptoms of IBS.
Luckily, we asked the tough questions to experts so you don’t have to.
The embarrassing symptoms of IBS
“Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) by definition includes abdominal pain and a change in bowel habits. This could include diarrhea, constipation, or both,” says Dr. Will Bulsiewicz gut health expert, gastroenterologist, and NY Times bestselling author of Fiber Fueled.
However, according to Dr. Bulsiewicz, abdominal pain and change in bowel habits aren’t necessarily the only symptoms you’ll find in IBS.
“Unfortunately, many of the people I have cared for with IBS have additional symptoms, some of which can be embarrassing or make them feel vulnerable or compromised while in public,” he says. “These include loud bowel noises that others can hear, a distended abdomen that makes you look pregnant, fear of food and pain triggered by food intolerances that attracts attention because you can’t order most of the things on the menu, and urgent, explosive diarrhea that if you don’t find a restroom within 30 seconds you will have an accident in your pants.”
Unfortunately, says Dr. Bulsiewicz, IBS can impact the quality of life for many of the people who suffer with it. “It can turn people into hermits that stay home and never go out in public out of fear that these symptoms will show up at the wrong time and embarrass them.”
How to handle those embarrassing moments
Holly Campbell Fowler, a certified health coach specializing in stomach issues, understands firsthand how embarrassing dealing with IBS can be. As someone who has Ulcerative Colitis, she says she understands what it is like to live with IBS and how awkward it can be to share symptoms with close friends and romantic partners.
“I used to be so embarrassed and kept my health issues to myself,” she tells SheKnows. “My advice is to start sharing as you feel comfortable, with as much or as little information as you feel comfortable sharing. I always like to start by sharing how it affects me and how it makes me feel both physically and emotionally. It also helps to be able to communicate how they can support you; they may want to help, but not know how.”
When it comes to her diet, Campbell Fowler tells SheKnows she avoids gluten, dairy, processed oils and additives, fast food, sugar, and coffee. “I also actively manage my stress, to help alleviate my symptoms as much as possible. IBS has been challenging to navigate from the very start, but I never want it to slow me down from doing all the things that I love. That is why I am so diligent about my diet and managing my stress.”
What else you can do to alleviate IBS
If you’re struggling with IBS, Dr. Bulsiewicz also has some tips on how to help soothe your symptoms.
Make absolutely sure that it’s IBS. “There are many people diagnosed with IBS that may have celiac disease, sucrose intolerance, gallbladder dysfunction, or many other conditions. It’s important to make sure that you have ruled out alternative diagnoses before accepting IBS as the diagnosis. The first rule of properly treating any medical condition is to first know with confidence what you’re actually treating.”
Practice diaphragmatic breathing at least twice daily and then learn to apply it to your IBS. “Diaphragmatic breathing is a breathing technique that’s been proven to be beneficial in the treatment of digestive health problems. When you practice it, you get better at applying it so that when the time comes and you need it, you’re confident and have the skill to use this tool to improve your symptoms.”
Peppermint is your friend. “Whether you have constipation or diarrhea, you will find that peppermint helps to soothe an upset gut. You can take the peppermint as tea, generally after your meal but feel free to find what works best for you.”
Try a prebiotic fiber supplement. “Fiber is the one thing that can help treat both diarrhea or constipation, and it’s great for the gut microbiome, which is the root cause of IBS. For this reason, I tend to recommend people start low and go slow with prebiotic fiber such as wheat dextrin, acacia powder, psyllium husk, or partially hydrolyzed guar gum.”
What to avoid with IBS?
Additionally, knowing what to remove from your diet is just as important as knowing what to add.
“I recommend avoiding dairy products and artificial sweeteners first and foremost. These are a common cause of bloating and digestive symptoms, and a shocking percentage of people,” says Dr. Bulsiewicz. “Also be wary of moderate high FODMAP and high histamine foods if you have a food intolerance to these foods. I don’t recommend completely avoiding them, but instead recommend reducing the amount that you are consuming until you are able to more readily tolerate them.”
He also recommends avoiding spicy, acidic, high fat foods when your gut is upset, alcohol (“This is not likely to make your IBS symptoms better”) and caffeine if you have diarrhea (“it will only make it worse”).
What to do you when you’re experiencing symptoms in public
Nothing is more embarrassing than experiencing symptoms from your IBS in public, which is why Dr. Bulsiewicz recommends having maximum control over your IBS prior to going into public. “If your IBS is bad at home, it’s likely to be worse while out in public,” he says. Additionally, he suggests having a plan in place before your big Friday night out so that you know what foods you will be cautious with and also how you will manage the symptoms that you have concerns about.
Last but not least Dr. Bulsiewicz says it’s key to remember you have tools in your IBS kit like diaphragmatic breathing. “ If you have practiced diaphragmatic breathing, then you have a tool that can be applied at any time. Use it early and often. If necessary, excuse yourself to the restroom so that you can privately use the breathing technique, preferably before the digestive symptoms have really flared up.”