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Student Health Services

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Partly digested food normally leaves the stomach and passes into the small intestine and then into the large intestine. The large intestine, also called the large bowel or the colon, makes food move through the intestine with gentle squeezing motions. With irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, the intestines squeeze too hard or not hard enough and cause food to move too fast or too slowly through the digestive system.


IBS can cause diarrhea, constipation, or a mixture of both diarrhea and constipation. It can also cause abdominal pain that either comes in short bouts or lasts for longer periods. Some people have no pain with IBS, but they may have diarrhea that happens right after they wake up in the morning, during meals, or right after they eat.

The symptoms may get worse with stress. Stressful events can include when a person travels, attends social events, or changes their daily routine. The symptoms may also get worse if a person does not eat right or eats a big meal.

How Do I Know If I have IBS?
Signs of IBS can include bloating and gas, constipation, diarrhea, mucus-covered stools, pain and cramping, feeling like you still need to have a bowel movement after you've already had one, and feeling a strong urge to have a bowel movement.

Your doctor may begin by asking you questions about your symptoms. If your symptoms have followed a pattern over time, the pattern may make it clear to your doctor that IBS is the cause. If you have just started to have symptoms, something else may be the cause. To find this cause, your doctor may need to do some tests.


Ways to manage IBS are to eat a varied diet that includes high-fiber foods, drink plenty of water, and avoid foods that make you feel worse. It is also important for you to find ways to handle stress.

Diet Changes
Fiber can be helpful because it improves the way the intestines work. It may also reduce bloating, pain, and other symptoms. Fiber is in fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, and cereals. Increase the fiber in your diet slowly. Psyllium, a source of fiber, can be found in products such as Fiberall or Metamucil. (Take the psyllium product with one or two glasses of water). When you increase the fiber in your diet, you may feel bloated and have gas at first. These problems usually get better as your system becomes used to the extra fiber.

If you have IBS, some foods can make you feel worse. For a few weeks, keep a diary of what you eat and what your symptoms are. If you think a food makes you feel worse, try not eating it for a while. You may find that your symptoms become worse after you eat foods that are high in fat or caffeine. Foods that contain sorbitol and other sugar alcohols (a sweetener often used in sugar-free candy, gum and some reduced carb foods) can cause diarrhea, as can antacids that contain magnesium. If gas is a problem for you, you might want to avoid beans, cabbage, and some fruits. You may also want to avoid apple and grape juice and eat fewer bananas, nuts, and raisins. You might want to try a low-fat diet with extra protein if you have pain after eating.

If milk and other dairy products bother you, you may have lactose intolerance, which means that your body can't digest the sugar, or lactose, in milk. You may need to limit the amount of milk and milk products, such as cheese and butter, in your diet. Dietary supplements are available to aid lactose intolerant people in digesting milk and milk products. To read more about this health concern, visit Lactose Intolerance .

Controlling IBS

  • Eat a varied diet and avoid foods high in fat.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Try eating 6 small meals a day rather than 3 larger ones.
  • Learn new and better ways to deal with your stress.

Relieving Symptoms

Because you may have to deal with IBS for a long time, you should not take medicines that could harm you if they're taken for long periods. However, if you're having a bad attack, a clinician may prescribe medicine, depending on your main symptom.

When diarrhea is a frequent problem, loperamide (Imodium) is a medicine that may help. Tranquilizers or sedatives can be given for short periods to treat anxiety that may be making your symptoms worse. You may be given an antidepressant medicine if your symptoms are severe. Antidepressants can help the pain and other symptoms in some patients, even though these people are not depressed.

You should avoid using laxatives. You may become dependent on them, and your intestines may become weakened.

Heating pads and warm baths may also be helpful to relieve symptoms.

Links & Resources

Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Tips on Controlling Your Symptoms
Irritable Bowel Syndrome