Because IBS symptoms vary from person to person, there isn't one remedy that's best for everyone. "It really has to be tailored to the patient," says Braden Kuo, MD, director of the Gastrointestinal Motility Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. A person who has IBS with constipation (IBS-C) will likely need a different approach than someone with IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D).
It's not entirely clear how stress, anxiety, and irritable bowel syndrome are related -- or which one comes first -- but studies show they can happen together.
When a doctor talks to people with this digestive disorder, "what you find is that about 60% of IBS patients will meet the criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders," says Edward Blanchard, PhD, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany.
The most common mental ailment people with irritable bowel syndrome...
Get more fiber, but do it gradually: When you add fiber-rich foods to your diet -- like whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables -- you add bulk to your stool, which can help with both diarrhea and constipation. Don't do it all at once, though. Start with just 2 to 3 grams a day to avoid gas and bloating, and eventually aim for 22 to 34 grams a day.
Think about a supplement: A daily pill that has fiber, such as psyllium husk (Metamucil) or wheat dextrin (Benefiber), may also help. Sometimes, though, too much of it can make constipation and bloating worse. "I'm more cautious recommending fiber to constipation patients," Kuo says. "They can have bloating initially, but if they can get past the first 2 to 3 weeks it often goes away."
Avoid problem foods: High-fat foods, dairy products, alcohol, caffeine, and artificial sweeteners can trigger stomach pain and digestive problems. It also helps to skip foods that cause gas, like beans and cabbage, or to eat smaller meals more often.
How can you tell which foods cause you trouble? Start a food diary that covers what you eat and how you feel. After a while, you can pinpoint the foods that seem to make your IBS flare up.
Try probiotics: “Good” germs like bifidobacterium may relieve pain and bloating. They’re inexpensive, safe, and you can buy them over-the-counter as pills and in some yogurts. But be careful: Because supplements aren't regulated by the FDA in the same way as medicine, there's no guarantee a product actually has the ingredients it claims.