A Thinking Strategy for IBS Relief

Looking at What Your Colon Does Right to Fix What's Going Wrong

woman with question mark over her head
IBS can be puzzling!. Photo: Brand New Images/Getty Images

You know that there is something wrong with your colon, something very, very wrong. If it worked right, you wouldn't have pain and chronic problems with either constipation or diarrhea. IBS can be very frustrating as there are rarely quick and easy ways of bringing the disorder under control.

When faced with a difficult challenge, sometimes it helps to think "out of the box". When I work with patients, I often encourage them to consider what it is that their body is doing right in order to encourage it to move things into more of a positive direction.

Therefore the following discussion offers you some "thinking points", areas for you to consider, as you think about your own body and how your IBS manifests itself, to see if perhaps there are some relief strategies that you have not as yet pursued.

What Does Your Colon Do Right?

You might be thinking, nothing! I have IBS, remember! Yes, it's true, your colon is not exactly operating smoothly right now, but it still is getting a couple of basic tasks done:

1. Stool Elimination

For one, your colon is still eliminating stool. Probably too often, if you have IBS-D, and not often enough if you have IBS-C. This can give you a starting point in thinking about where you want things to go. Let's take each problem separately.

For those of you with IBS-D, the goal is to try to slow things down. This may mean adding mind/body activities into your life to help to calm and quiet your central nervous system.

If may mean to learn strategies for dealing with urgency. It may mean to be sure to eat in a way that doesn't speed up colon movement.

For those of you with IBS-C, the goal is to encourage the colon to eliminate on a more frequent basis. This may require scheduling daily trips to the bathroom using bowel retraining skills.

It may mean increasing dietary fiber to keep the stool soft enough to encourage the bowels to initiate a bowel movement. It may mean eating in a way that stimulates the bowel contractions that bring about a bowel movement.

For those of you who have IBS-A, your goal is to try to encourage your system to find a happy medium between eliminating too often and not often enough. You may benefit from both the urgency strategies offered for IBS-D and the bowel retraining strategies offered for IBS-C. Striving for regularity and routine in terms of the timing and sizing of your meals may help your body to establish more consistent bowel habits.

2. Stool Production

Another thing that your colon does "right" is that it produces stool. Granted, depending on which subtype you have, you stools may seem too hard or too loose. Thinking about this as a positive can help to take some of the animosity out of your relationship with your colon. Many people do not quite understand why stool is hard or soft, or liquidy or mucousy for that matter.

For the most part, the texture of stool has to do with how long it has spent in your colon.

Hard stool is stool that has had much of its water content drawn out of it because it has been in the colon for a long time. Hard stool is thus associated with the infrequent passage of stool with constipation. (A person who is not constipated might note that the first stool in a bowel movement may be harder or firmer than subsequent stool.) Any strategy that encourages more frequent passage of stool will help to keep the stool from becoming too hard. Eating foods that contain soluble fiber may help the stool to retain water and thus keep it softer and therefore easier to pass.

Loose stool is thus the result of the opposite problem - the passage of stool too quickly so that not enough water has been drawn out of the stool in order to firm it up into a nice shape. If you have IBS-D, you may notice that each subsequent bowel movement becomes more and more watery. This is because you are now emptying fecal matter from higher and higher up your large intestine, stool that has not yet been fully prepared for evacuation. Therefore what is needed for loose stools is to slow down the system. Thus the desired direction to aim for (not always easy!) is to try to calm your system down without additional trips to the bathroom, so that you can retain the stool matter to be firmed up for tomorrow's evacuation.

Mucus in stool is a common, but poorly understood, symptom of IBS. It is thought to be a benign symptom, that means that it is not a sign of any kind of serious disease. The best thing to do if you see it in your stool is to not give it a second thought.

When Does Your Colon Work Right?

Another thing to consider is the question of when does your colon do what its supposed to do. Under what circumstances is it eliminating stool? Can you use that information to encourage it to eliminate stool in a more "normal" way?

This information can be very helpful to those of you with IBS-C. Much of your discomfort comes from the fact that far too much time elapses between bowel movements. What can you identify about the times when you do have a movement? Is there a particular time in the day when it is most likely to happen? Is it after a large meal? Is it after a meal containing caffeine or some fat? You can use any clues from these questions and incorporate them into your bowel retraining practice.

If you have IBS-D, try to see if there is a pattern to when you are most likely to have your all-too-frequent bowel movements. Is it more likely to happen in the morning? After a large meal? When you are stressed? You can use this information to deal more proactively with your symptoms. If you see a particular pattern, you can try to schedule your day accordingly whenever possible. If your symptoms are significantly affected by stress, you can learn to use stress management strategies such as relaxation exercises to help to calm your system.

If you have IBS-A, you may be able to get lots of useful information by evaluating the notion of "when". What factors were in place when your system was working too quickly versus what factors were in place when your system was working too slowly. Again, the goal is to find that elusive happy medium.

When Does Your IBS Wane?

This may not be true for all of you, but IBS is supposed to be a disorder that "waxes and wanes". If you are lucky enough to experience a "waning" you might want to think about what factors may have contributed to that time of remission. What were the circumstances of your life at that point? Were you eating differently? Was your work life different? How was your stress level? Were you engaged in more self care activities? Were your relationships more satisfying?

Another major thing to consider: Was there some IBS management strategy that you were using back then that you have since gotten away from? In her memoir "Sophie's Story", author Sophie Lee finds some significant relief by doing just that. I won't give away the spoiler (you have to read the book, and you should read the book), but she returns to a previously tried remedy with a good result. As discussed earlier, since there are no quick and easy remedies for IBS, sometimes something you are doing is helping, but the results are subtle and you don't really realize that the particular strategy is helping until you get away from it. Paying attention to what things were in place when your IBS was in "remission" may help you to identify some of those more helpful strategies or remedies.

The Bottom Line

None of these suggestions on their own are going to "cure" your IBS. They are all offered as a way to take some of the mystery out of your digestive system and to encourage you to consider some factors that might help your body to move toward a state of improved wellness and digestive functioning. Thinking about what your digestive system does "right" can help you to address the things that have been going so horribly "wrong".


"Constipation" National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC) Accessed February 13, 2013.

"Your Digestive System and How It Works" National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse Accessed July 27, 2011.

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