Managing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can often be managed by changing your diet and lifestyle, and understanding the nature of the condition.

You may find it helpful to:

  • follow a healthy, balanced diet
  • stay hydrated
  • exercise regularly
  • manage your stress levels

Medication is sometimes prescribed for people with IBS to treat the individual symptoms they experience. In some cases, psychological treatments may also be helpful.

Adjusting your diet

The first step in trying to reduce your symptoms of IBS is to follow a healthy, balanced diet. Aim to:

  • eat regular meals including breakfast, lunch and an evening meal (if required, small snacks can be included)
  • avoid missing meals or eating late at night
  • take time over your meals, making time to sit down and chew your food well

Use the Eatwell Guide to help you include foods from each food group in your daily routine.

Fibre

People with IBS are often advised to modify the amount of fibre in their diet depending on their main symptoms. For example, a lower fibre diet can be beneficial for diarrhoea whereas a higher fibre intake can be beneficial for constipation.

More about adjusting your fibre intake

Fluid

Having enough fluid is important for overall health. It may also ease your symptoms, especially constipation. This is also particularly important when increasing the fibre in your diet or to replace fluids lost when experiencing diarrhoea.

Try to have at least 8 cups or glasses (1.5 to 2 litres) of fluid per day. You may need more if you have diarrhoea or are increasing your fibre intake. Good choices include water, sugar free drinks and drinks with no caffeine. Aim to reduce fizzy drinks or those that are high in caffeine.

Caffeine

Caffeine is most commonly found in tea, coffee, energy drinks and cola. If you think caffeine may affect your symptoms, try to reduce it further or eliminate it completely.

Tips to reduce your caffeine intake include:

  • reduce your intake of tea and coffee and aim to switch to decaffeinated or naturally caffeine-free varieties such as herbal teas
  • limit cola and iron brew – decaffeinated varieties are available, but limiting fizzy drinks generally is best
  • energy drinks such as Red Bull, Monster and Rock Star are very high in caffeine and should be avoided

Alcohol

Alcohol can make IBS symptoms worse. Aim to follow recommendations for safe alcohol intake and drink no more than 14 units per week. Spread these out over 3 or more days and have regular alcohol-free days.

More about alcohol guidelines

Fatty foods

High fat foods should be limited as part of a healthy diet. They have also been shown to aggravate some IBS symptoms, especially diarrhoea. These foods include:

  • fried foods
  • fast food
  • pastries
  • crisps
  • cakes

To improve health and potential IBS symptoms only include these foods in small amounts and infrequently. Many reduced or low-fat varieties are available for a healthier alternative.

Sweeteners

Some sweeteners can cause diarrhoea. Look out for sweetener names ending in the letters ‘ol’ as these are most likely to cause symptoms.

These are found in some sugar-free drinks, sweets, chewing gum and mints. It can also be found in ‘diabetic’ and slimming products. Check the labels and limit these products.

Processed foods

Processed or reheated foods contain resistant starch, which can be difficult for your body to digest. Processed foods include:

  • ready meals
  • potato and pasta salads
  • oven chips
  • part-baked breads

These starches can aggravate wind, bloating and diarrhoea symptoms. To limit these, make your own meals using fresh foods wherever possible.

Easing bloating and cramping

IBS can cause bloating or cramps after eating. There are some things you can do which will ease any bloating or cramping you may have. These include:

  • eating small but regular meals
  • eating oats regularly
  • avoiding foods that are hard to digest such as cauliflower and Brussels sprouts
  • exercising regularly

Low FODMAP diet

If your symptoms do not improve after making changes to your diet, a special diet called the low FODMAP diet may be helpful.

A low FODMAP diet should only be followed with the support of a specialist dietitian trained in the low FODMAP process.

A low FODMAP diet isn’t suitable for everyone and must only be used following a dietetic consultation.

Probiotics

Probiotics are ‘good bacteria’ found in some foods or supplements. It is suggested that these ‘good bacteria’ can restore the natural balance of your gut bacteria when it has been disrupted.

It is unclear exactly how much of a benefit probiotics offer and which types are most effective and research is ongoing to provide further evidence for the use of probiotics in IBS.

If you want to try a probiotic product, you should take it for at least 4 weeks to see if your symptoms improve. You should follow the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding dosage.

More about probiotics

Exercise

Many people find that exercise helps to relieve the symptoms of IBS. Your GP can advise you on the type of exercise that is suitable for you.

Aim to do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as cycling or fast walking, every week.

The exercise should be strenuous enough to increase your heart and breathing rates.

More about physical activity guidelines for adults.

Medication

Sometimes medications can be used to help treat IBS, including:

  • antispasmodics – which help reduce abdominal (stomach) pain and cramping
  • laxatives – which can help relieve constipation
  • antimotility medicines – which can help relieve diarrhoea

All medication should be taken following the packet or a doctor’s advice.


Last updated:
04 May 2023