Ten years ago, Nikki Martinez lived in constant pain. "I had cramping, constipation, diarrhea. I was so nauseous, I almost couldn't stand eating." Martinez, then 30, was eventually diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a collection of symptoms that affects up to 1 in 5 people.
"We don't completely understand what causes IBS. There is no cure, but we do know a lot about it," says Yuri A. Saito Loftus, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic.
Many people with irritable bowel syndrome turn to laxatives to relieve constipation. But it’s important to understand exactly how much these treatments can help the condition.
Laxatives do ease constipation and help you have more regular bowel movements. There's no proof they relieve stomach aches, bloating, and other problems that come with IBS, though. Researchers haven’t done enough of the right kinds of scientific studies to know exactly how well they work.
But that doesn’t mean a laxative...
"We know there are different triggers for different people," Loftus says. Some people have milder IBS symptoms -- which include belly pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and nausea -- that come and go. Others, like Martinez, have symptoms that interfere with daily life.
Here's how you can find relief:
1. Find ways to relax.
Stress is strongly linked to IBS, Loftus says. While it doesn't cause irritable bowel syndrome, it can worsen symptoms.
How to damp down stress levels? "It could simply be doing something you enjoy or physical exercise," Loftus says. Relaxation exercises, mindfulness, or meditation often help too, she says.
2. Track your triggers.
Most people with IBS notice a link between the foods they eat and their symptoms, Loftus says. "For some people it may be one food group or a number of foods" that trigger symptoms. "For others, it may be something completely different."
Keep a symptom and diet diary to spot possible trends, Loftus says. Share your diary with your doctor to help interpret results.
3. Rethink your diet.
Unfortunately, no one-size-fits-all eating plan can help with IBS symptoms.
"I generally recommend a balanced, healthy diet," Loftus says. And one that's low in caffeine, a gut stimulant, she adds.
Other things to avoid? Carbonated beverages, sweetened drinks, and sugar-free candy and gum, which can have sugars or other ingredients that act as laxatives.
4. Get moving.
Exercise also may relieve constipation, Loftus says. "The physical act of shaking things on the inside helps move food and waste through the body."
Try to move every day, she says. Aim for a mix of exercises --walking, stretching, bicycling, yoga.
As for Martinez, now 40, she's pain-free. "Switching to a gluten-free diet certainly helped me. I definitely have a better work/life balance now," she says. And as a practicing psychologist who teaches relaxation techniques, "I learned to practice what I preach. I rarely have a flare."
Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of "WebMD Magazine."