Updated 10 August 2017

Living with IBS

Having a spastic colon is no fun, but with the right knowledge, diet and attitude, you can make sure your sensitive stomach doesn’t hamper your life.

Having a spastic colon is no fun, but with the right knowledge, diet and attitude, you can make sure your sensitive stomach doesn’t hamper your life.

For many of us a stomach of steel is but wishful thinking. If you are blessed with a sensitive digestive system, understanding what triggers tummy troubles will help you cope. Irritable bowel syndrome, known as IBS or spastic colon, can be a major source of discomfort. Symptoms consist of irregular diarrhoea, stomach cramps; abdominal pain that intensifies throughout the day and constipation. Most sufferers say they feel bloated, too.

If you have IBS, you probably wake up without pain, but as the day passes your tummy starts hurting and the bloating grows uncomfortable. Going to the loo will usually relieve the pain if you manage to pass stools.

Diagnosing the syndrome is as much of a pain as the condition itself. There are no specific tests that doctors can use to reliably diagnose IBS. Instead they have to rely heavily on tell-tale symptoms to determine if the patient has the condition. Many cases of IBS go unreported so it is difficult to say just how prevalent it is. Doctors estimate that in most countries IBS affects between 10% and 15% of the population.

The causes

There are four main theories as to what causes the condition. It is thought IBS may be caused by serotonin, genetics; inflammation of the bowels or an overgrowth of bacteria in the intestines. 

One thing is clear: food is a major trigger factor when it comes to IBS.

Since there is no scientific evidence that places food at the root of the problem, diet shouldn’t be seen as the cause, merely the catalyst. Poor eating habits, a lack of knowledge about nutrition and irregular eating times all contribute to the aggravation of the colon.

The reason diet influences your colon so much is because food contains many nutritive minerals that can either induce IBS or prevent it. Unfortunately, some of the ordinary foods that trigger IBS are often overlooked. You should also be aware that some foods that are high in insoluble ?bre (?bre that doesn’t breakdown during digestion) might cause diarrhoea, while foods without ?bre may cause constipation. The most important thing is to follow a healthy, balanced diet. Combine this with regular exercise to help you handle stress, which is another established IBS trigger.

Foods that trigger IBS fatty foods

Fat is one of the main digestive tract stimulants and therefore one of the most common triggers of IBS. There have been no controlled studies to determine if low-fat foods are more IBS friendly.

Foods that create gas

Beans, brussel sprouts, onions, carrots, celery, raisins, bananas, prune juice, apricots, wheat germ and bagels produce gas. While IBS sufferers may not necessarily make more gas, they experience greater pain from the build-up of gas.


Dairy products may cause symptoms in both IBS sufferers and people who are lactose intolerant. IBS patients often report flatulence, bloating, abdominal pain, nausea and loose stools after ingesting foods containing lactose.


This sugar is found in honey, table sugar, fruit juices, breakfast cereals, cooldrinks and jams. The body finds it difficult to break down a large amount of fructose, which may even upset the stomach of someone who doesn’t have IBS.


Coffee, not caffeine, acts as a minor diuretic and as such may trigger IBS. Studies have shown that IBS sufferers who cut coffee from their diet saw improvements and diminished symptoms. Up to 26% of people with IBS said they no longer drank coffee due to the adverse effects.


At least 20% of people with IBS said they had an intolerance to alcohol and 12% limited or avoided alcohol completely. In short, avoid large meals, coffee and alcohol, and reduce fructose, fat and lactose intake.

The list of foods that trigger IBS can vary from person to person. Foods that trigger IBS in some people may cause no problems for others. That is why most dieticians recommend that IBS sufferers keep a food diary or follow an elimination diet.

Starting a food diary

Keeping a food diary is simple and can give you a good idea of what your diet looks like. In this technological age, you can easily find an online tool or downloadable app to help you keep track of the foods you consume.

Dieticians may recommend a more back-to-basics approach, using a pen and a notepad. Simply writing down what you eat (an apple, a tuna sandwich,etc.) will help you get used to writing in the diary. Once you are well practised, you can be more detailed and note down times and quantities e.g. 250ml glass of water and half an orange at 8am. You should also make a note of when you experience IBS symptoms.

After keeping a food diary for a while, you can look back to see which foods are your IBS triggers. With this information, you and your dietician can work out a diet that will work best for you.

Elimination diet

An elimination diet works similarly to an allergy test. Your doctor or dietician will give you a set diet to follow over a specific period of time. You are expected to document what you eat and the symptoms if any arise. You will work closely with your health practitioner during this time. The process will eliminate certain foods to determine which ones trigger your symptoms. Once the elimination diet is complete, your doctor or dietician will assist in creating an IBS friendly diet programme.

If you suffer from IBS, it is best to consult a dietician for a total diet plan. Here are just a few IBS friendly foods that you can incorporate into your diet to get started.

  • Brown rice
  • Almonds
  • Coconut
  • Buckwheat and other non-wheat grains
  • Oats and oatmeal
  • Ground lean meats
  • Rice cakes

Top tip

A steady fluid intake can help ease IBS symptoms. Drink water or herbal tea and steer clear of fizzy drinks.

  1. Stick to a routine of eating at set times.
  2. Drink the daily recommended amount of water, about eight small glasses.
  3. Look for foods with simple flavours and less spice.
  4. Don’t rush your meal – sit down and chew.
  5. Never self-medicate.

(Health24, Kyle Boshoff, August 2012)

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