4 Lifestyle Changes for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (Beyond the Diet)

When it comes to IBS, diet isn’t the only lifestyle change that matters.

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Many people link symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to food and eating. It’s a digestive disorder, and symptoms often appear after meals, so that makes sense. However, dietary changes aren’t the only way to manage IBS. In fact, there are a number of lifestyle changes beyond the diet that may improve IBS symptoms.

The Burden of IBS Symptoms

If you’re struggling with IBS symptoms, it’s worth the effort to find the habits that work. IBS may not affect your organs or threaten your health in other ways, but it can still affect your quality of life. Symptoms may cause you to miss school, work, or social events. It might cause you to fear eating with others in case symptoms arise, or you might avoid certain hobbies or events.

Lifestyle Changes for IBS

In addition to evaluating your diet and taking caution with IBS trigger foods, these lifestyle changes may help ease IBS symptoms:

1. Manage stress

Beyond diet, stress is one of the main IBS triggers. One of the reasons is because your gut has a “second brain” called the enteric nervous system, or ENS. Your ENS can’t solve math problems, but it plays a big role in your body function.

The ENS has over 100 million nerve cells, and it sends messages back and forth with the brain (or central nervous system). This brain-gut connection is why you feel butterflies or even nausea when you’re nervous.

Experts also theorize that the brain-gut connection is what fuels IBS. Basically, your ENS tells your brain that something is wrong while you’re digesting food—when in reality, everything is fine. This miscommunication sends pain signals to your brain, so you feel a stomach ache.

It works both ways: Emotional stress can cause stomach pain, and the IBS pain can worsen your emotional stress. This can become a difficult cycle to break.

The moral of the story is that managing your stress levels can help interrupt the cycle. Activities like meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises can help prevent symptoms if you do them regularly, and they might help relieve symptoms that have already started.

2. Exercise regularly

Exercise may help with IBS for a couple reasons. First, aerobic exercise can help with digestion. As a result, it may relieve symptoms like constipation and bloating. Second, exercise is a well-known stress reliever, and stress management is essential for living with IBS.

3. Stay hydrated

Drinking enough water is important for your overall health, but it can also help with digestion. Dehydration can cause or worsen constipation. Without going into too many unpleasant details, drinking enough water helps make your #2 easier to pass.

4. Try therapy

Certain types of therapy may help reduce stress, or they can teach you methods of mindfulness and relaxation. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy can help you recognize when your thoughts are spiraling, and how to reframe your thinking to reduce stress.

Plus, many people with IBS also have anxiety and/or depressive disorders. Often, treating the underlying anxiety and depression may help manage IBS symptoms. Some people with IBS even find relief from symptoms when taking antidepressants.

Getting Help for IBS

Lifestyle changes are the first-line treatment for IBS, but they’re not necessarily the only option. If your symptoms continue despite changing your habits, talk to your doctor or a gastroenterologist (a doctor who specializes in stomach and digestion problems). They can help you find the lifestyle changes that work, or you might be a candidate for certain medications that may help.