Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Managing IBS in Your Daily Life

Top Tips for Living With IBS

If there is one thing that is certain about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) it would be the fact that it is not easy to live with. Trying to go about one's normal life with an unpredictable set of bowels can be quite challenging. Add to that the fact that by their very nature, IBS symptoms can be embarrassing, and it is easy to see how IBS could end up having a negative impact on many aspects of a person's life.

In this overview, you will find some tips for managing IBS alongside all of the important areas of your life.

Managing Meals

If you are like many people who have IBS, trying to figure out what to eat can be quite confusing. You might be able to eat one thing one day and be fine, and then the next time you eat the same thing you are running to the bathroom. One thing that can be helpful is to keep a food diary, so that you can start to look for patterns among the foods that you eat and your symptoms.

Some tips for managing meals when you have IBS include:

  • Eat smaller meals throughout your day.
  • Avoid greasy, fatty foods.
  • Make sure to eat adequate amounts of dietary fiber, particularly soluble fiber.

One of the most promising things that has happened in the world of IBS treatment is the development of an effective dietary approach called the low-FODMAP diet. This diet involves the elimination of foods that are high in certain carbohydrates, collectively called FODMAPs, that are found in common foods for an elimination phase lasting several weeks. At the end of the elimination phase, you slowly reintroduce foods by their specific FODMAP type so as to gather information as to which foods you can tolerate without becoming symptomatic.

The diet can be tricky to follow, so for best results it is recommended that you work with a qualified dietary professional.

Coping With Pain

The experience of having recurrent bouts of abdominal pain is a defining symptom of IBS. Working with your doctor on an overall treatment plan is a great start, so as to try to head off symptoms whenever possible. But when you find yourself dealing with bad cramps, spasms, or other types of IBS pain, there are some things you can do to self-soothe:

  • Heat can be an effective pain soother. Try placing a hot water bottle or heating pad on your abdomen (over your clothing so as to avoid a burn!)
  • Try sipping some soothing IBS-friendly herbal tea.
  • Try taking a peppermint oil supplement. Peppermint oil has been shown to be as effective as a prescription antispasmodic in relieving spasms that lead to IBS pain.
  • Try using relaxation exercises such as progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and/or imagery to help to soothe your nervous system and reduce your pain experience.

    Dealing With Bathroom Issues

    One thing we can say for sure about IBS is that it is confusing! Some people experience urgent bouts of diarrhea, while others deal with the frustration of bowels that do not move often enough. And people who have IBS-A, alternating type, find themselves going from one problem to another. In addition to addressing your IBS medically and through diet changes, let's take a look at some things that you can do to make life easier when dealing with all this unpredictability.

    If constipation is your predominant issue you will want to try to keep your body on a regular schedule of meals so as to try to keep your intestines moving. You may find that eating a large breakfast, with a hot drink and some healthy fats, can serve as a trigger for a bowel movement. You may also want to follow the steps of bowel retraining to encourage your body to return to a state of regularity.

    If dealing with the frequent bowel movements of diarrhea-predominant IBS (IBS-D) is your biggest challenge, you will want to focus on activities that will keep your system calm.

    This means eating small meals every few hours, utilizing stress management techniques, and feeling like you are prepared for emergencies. It can be very helpful to have a good sense of where to find a toilet and perhaps to always have access to a survival bag with baby wipes and a change of clothes.

    If your bathroom issues flip back and forth between episodes of constipation and diarrhea, you will want to use an approach that encompasses all of the tips above. In particular, you may find it helpful to use bowel retraining and regular meal times as a way to help to train your body to be on as regular a schedule as it can be.

    Telling Others

    IBS differs from many other health conditions due to age-old stigma about the workings of the intestines. However, you may find that you take a lot of stress off of yourself (and your belly!) if you are open with others about what you are dealing with. Here are a couple of tips:

    1. Use your judgement as to who to tell.

    The whole point of telling is to make your life easier.

    Thus, start out by telling the people in your circle who are loving, understanding people. Unless it is a really important situation, such as your job, you may not want to tell people who will tease, break your confidence, or give unhelpful advice.

    2. Be matter-of-fact when you do tell. You can set the tone of the conversation by speaking frankly about your symptoms without a trace of unnecessary (and unearned!) embarrassment or shame. Simply say, "I have stomach issues" and then go on to state whatever it is that you may need in terms of extra consideration.

    Family Life

    You may be finding that IBS can make it challenging to meet the responsibilities that come along with being part of a family. IBS can interfere with your ability to enjoy family meals or other get-togethers or can affect your ability to be the parent that you would like to be.

    The first thing that you can do is to cut yourself some slack and to ask that others do the same. You are not well, and so accommodations may need to be made for that fact by all involved. You will take a lot of stress off of your system if you are clear and open with what your needs are, and if you ask others to serve as a backup should your bathroom issues prevent you from handling the things that you normally handle.

    Your Social Life

    Social connections and contact are essential for physical and mental health. With IBS, you may need to use some assertion and some creativity to keep up your connections with friends. Be open with your friends about what your needs are, such as having access to bathrooms, only making plans at certain times of the day, eating at specific restaurants, or simply having the need to cancel at the last minute. Your true friends will understand.

    You will get best results if you use a matter-of-fact assertive tone when telling other people about your particular dietary needs. Just say, "I am on a special diet for my stomach" or "That food just doesn't agree with me." You should never feel that you need to eat one of your known trigger foods just to be polite.

    Your Sex Life

    IBS can also certainly take its toll on intimacy. It can be hard to "get in the mood" when your body is giving you so much trouble—particulary the messy "down below" trouble of IBS. The key here is to try to keep communication open so as to enhance emotional intimacy, and so that your partner does not feel that their needs are not important.

    If you are single and dealing with the dating scene, IBS can add another wrinkle to the mix of the things that need to be addressed as two individuals try to get to know one another. Here you will want to focus on the timing of your telling as you will look for that sweet spot between telling too soon and telling too late. The silver lining here is that if the other person is understanding and supportive, they may end up being a really good candidate for a long-term relationship.

    Your Work Life

    The unpredictability of IBS symptoms can make it hard to meet the firm demands of a job. The relationship that you have with your boss will determine whether or not it is best for you to fill them in on your IBS. In an optimal situation, your boss is receptive to your needs and willing to work on incorporating some flexibility into your workday. You may be reassured to learn that IBS is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means that you are entitled to "reasonable accommodations" for managing your physical needs while dealing with your work responsibilities.

    If you are in school, it may be helpful to notify school authorities about your IBS and any special needs that might go along with that. You can ask to have a 504 plan drawn up which outlines accommodations similar to those of the ADA.

    Getting Out of the House

    Whether you are traveling around the country or simply trying to get to the supermarket, you may find that it is not so easy to just get up and go. Preparation will be key.

    1. Whenever possible, plan your day in alignment with your own body clock. In other words, if your symptoms are worse in the morning, try to schedule appointments later in the day.

    2. For peace of mind, you may want to have a good sense of where you will have access to bathrooms.

    3. You may want to pack and carry some IBS-friendly take-along meals and snacks.

    4. Do your research ahead of time to find restaurants that will have appropriate food options for you.

    A Word From Verywell

    As you can see, living life with IBS may require some adjustments to your normal routines. This will best be accomplished by giving yourself permission to prioritize your own needs and self-care. The better you take care of your body, the freer you will be to live your life to the fullest.


    Ford AC, Moayyedi P, Lacy BE, et al. American College of Gastroenterology Monograph on the Management of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Chronic Idiopathic ConstipationAmerican Journal of Gastroenterology 2014; 109:S2-S26.

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