7 Ways To Prevent & Manage IBS + Why It's So Much More Common In Women
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common gastrointestinal disorder that affects the small and large intestines, causing a variety of uncomfortable symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and irregular bowel habits. While there is no definitive cure for IBS, several natural approaches can help prevent its onset or minimize the severity of symptoms.
It's worth calling out that IBS seems to be more prevalent in women1. The fluctuation of hormonal levels, especially during menstruation, menopause, and pregnancy, can significantly impact IBS symptoms. So, one of the first things I recommend to women looking to manage their IBS symptoms is to track how they change throughout the menstrual cycle. Some women experience worse symptoms during their periods—so managing stress, maintaining a balanced diet, and staying hydrated (especially before and during menses) can help alleviate symptoms during this time. Your digestive capacity may also become more limited or variable during your period, so it's important to focus on eating nutrient-dense, easily digestible foods.
Women may also experience changes in their digestive health and gut microbiome once they reach menopause. Consuming phytoestrogen-rich foods like soy, flaxseeds, and legumes can help mitigate these hormone-related symptoms.
Beyond monitoring gut health during these times of hormonal fluctuation, here are other ways I recommend preventing and managing IBS through dietary changes, lifestyle modifications, and stress management:
Prioritize fiber and limit high-FODMAP foods
Diet plays a significant role in the development and management of IBS. As an Ayurvedic clinician and scientist focused on the effects of diet on gut health and the microbiome, I always suggest patients prioritize getting enough fiber. A diet rich in soluble fiber can promote regular bowel movements and prevent constipation, a common trigger for IBS. Foods like oats, flaxseeds, and legumes are excellent sources of soluble fiber.
Some individuals with IBS also find relief by following a low-FODMAP diet. FODMAPs are fermentable carbohydrates found in various foods, and limiting high-FODMAP items may reduce symptoms. Consult a health care professional or a registered dietitian before starting this diet to ensure balanced nutrition.
Get plenty of probiotics
Research has shown that individuals with IBS often have an altered gut microbiota composition2, with an imbalance in the ratio of beneficial and harmful bacteria. This dysbiosis can lead to gut inflammation, increased gut permeability, and heightened sensitivity in the intestines—all of which are associated with IBS symptoms.
Probiotics work by restoring the balance of the gut microbiota and creating a favorable environment for the growth of beneficial bacteria. Eating probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables can help you maintain a healthy gut microbiome, potentially reducing your risk of IBS development.
For those already experiencing IBS symptoms, probiotics can also be an essential part of a comprehensive treatment plan. However, it's important to consult with a health care professional to determine the most suitable probiotic product and species for your specific symptoms and needs.
Here are some specific probiotic species that have demonstrated promise in IBS prevention and treatment:
- Lactobacillus plantarum: This species is known for its ability to improve gut health and reduce inflammation3. It can help alleviate common symptoms in IBS like abdominal pain and bloating. Look for probiotic supplements containing L. plantarum for IBS relief.
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus: This probiotic species may help balance the gut microbiota and alleviate IBS symptoms, especially in cases of IBS with diarrhea4.5 Several species of Lactobacillus, such as L. acidophilus, are also used in these cases.
- Bifidobacterium infantis: B. infantis is well-regarded for its capacity to modulate the gut microbiota and reduce gut inflammation. Studies have shown that it can be particularly effective in alleviating symptoms of IBS, especially in those with diarrhea-predominant IBS6.
- Saccharomyces boulardii: This beneficial yeast is known for its ability to restore gut balance, reduce diarrhea, and alleviate abdominal discomfort7. It is often recommended for individuals with IBS who experience frequent bowel irregularities.
- Combination probiotics: Some studies have shown that a combination of different probiotic species can be more effective in managing IBS symptoms8. Products like Align, which contain Bifidobacterium infantis and other beneficial species, have gained popularity for their IBS-specific benefits.
- NexGen probiotic species: Clostridium butyricum, a next-generation or emerging probiotic species as it is not Lactobacillus or Bifidobacteria, is a type of bacteria known as a butyrate-producing probiotic. Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid that plays a crucial role in maintaining gut health. It is a preferred energy source for the cells lining the colon and possesses anti-inflammatory properties9.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Adequate hydration is crucial for overall digestive health. Drinking enough water helps prevent constipation—a common trigger for IBS. Ensure you consume an appropriate amount of water daily to keep your digestive system functioning optimally.
RELATED READ: How To Stay Hydrated: The Most Hydrating Foods & Drinks
Stay on top of your stress
Stress and anxiety can exacerbate IBS symptoms, and they may even contribute to the development of the condition10. Though managing stress can be easier said than done, engaging in mind-body practices such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises seems to have a positive influence on the gut-brain connection11.
Regular physical activity is not only beneficial for overall health but may also contribute to the prevention and management of IBS13. Exercise helps maintain healthy digestive functions, reduces stress, and supports a balanced metabolism. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week.
Look into peppermint and ginger
Research shows that certain plants may aid in the prevention of IBS, such as peppermint, which has muscle-relaxing properties14, and ginger, which is known for its anti-inflammatory and digestive benefits and may help prevent or reduce the severity of IBS symptoms15.
Turn to Ayurvedic wisdom
Ayurveda provides a comprehensive and holistic approach to health, and I've seen many Ayurvedic recommendations prove helpful for reducing the impact of IBS. Here are a few:
- Eat warming food: Ayurveda emphasizes warm, cooked meals that are easy to digest. Favor foods like rice, cooked vegetables, and spices such as fennel, cumin, and coriander. Avoid excessive cold, raw, fried, or spicy foods. Drink warm water (not cold or iced) throughout the day to improve digestion.
- Try functional spices: Commonly used herbs in Ayurveda can help support digestion and regulate bowel movements. Some of my favorites include Triphala, a classic Ayurvedic formula that helps in cleansing the digestive tract and promoting proper peristalsis16, and aloe vera (juice or gel) for soothing the gut lining and reducing inflammation17 in the digestive system in IBS. Fennel tea also has carminative properties18 that relieve gas and bloating in IBS and other gastrointestinal conditions.
- Try soothing rituals: Following Ayurvedic daily routines, including oil massage (Abhyanga), gentle exercise (yoga), and adequate sleep and rest (downtime), may promote gut health, hormonal balance, and overall well-being.
By embracing a holistic approach and harnessing the benefits of probiotics, Ayurveda, and the wonders of the natural world, you can embark on a path toward digestive harmony and a life where IBS no longer dictates your every move. However, it's important to remember that IBS is a complex condition with individualized triggers and symptoms. Consult with a health care professional or a registered dietitian to find a tailored prevention plan that suits your specific needs.
Dr. Christine Tara Peterson PhD AHP RYT is a highly accomplished practitioner and researcher in Ayurveda and Yoga. She has a background in Microbiology & Immunology, which she has integrated with her knowledge of Ayurveda and Herbal Medicine to become a renowned expert in the field.
With extensive training from some of the most distinguished Ayurvedic clinicians and doctors, Dr. Peterson is committed to promoting individualized and evidence-based approaches to healthcare. Her research on the gut microbiome and Ayurvedic medicine has made significant contributions to the field, while her clinical work focuses on gut and nervous system disorders, women’s health, and personalized care. She is the author of You Are What You Digest.