Statistics show that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) impacts between one in every 10 people in Singapore—and the majority of those affected are women. Symptoms vary, but span from stomach pain, cramping and bloating to diarrhoea and/or constipation, and urgently needing to go to the toilet. Whatever the symptoms suffered, IBS can be extremely uncomfortable, but a visit to your GP might not leave you with much in the way of medicinal treatment options. While it’s important to pay a visit to the doctor in order to rule out any more sinister illnesses, when it comes to alleviating symptoms of IBS, a doctor will often advise amending your diet.
“There’s no specific diagnostic test to confirm you have IBS,” explains Rhian Stephenson, nutritionist, naturopath and founder of Artah. “Rather, it’s diagnosed by a process of exclusion from other conditions that present with similar symptoms, such as an infection, coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. It rarely appears out of nowhere—chronic antibiotic use, infection, medications, environmental factors, a stressful or emotional event, poor diet and food intolerances/sensitivities can all cause symptoms that fall under the IBS umbrella.”
How diet impacts IBS
While I have personally visited my doctor (who confirmed I had IBS) in the past about some relatively severe stomach pain and bloating, it is the advice Stephenson has given me that has helped me to ward off the symptoms day to day. “Identifying food triggers can take time but it’s a good way to manage symptoms,” she explains. “The first step is to start using a symptom tracker to identify patterns and see if there is a specific food or situation that is causing a reaction—because food intolerance or sensitivity can manifest as IBS, elimination diets can also be helpful in finding the root cause.”
I quickly learned that an excess of gluten—in particular the ultra-processed, sugary bread found in supermarkets—not only quickly triggers my IBS, but also causes a downturn in my mood. (It’s worth noting that IBS can cause and worsen mood issues, such as anxiety and depression, due to the digestive system’s “complex nervous system and major role in mood regulation”, explains Stephenson.) But others may experience other signs and symptoms, so excluding specific food groups, such as gluten, dairy, soy, egg, corn and peanuts, and then reintroducing them one by one, can help you uncover what’s impacting you. Artah’s 28 Day Reset is excellent for guiding you through this process.
The easy tip to tackle IBS
Perhaps the most important tip I learned from Stephenson couldn’t be simpler to incorporate into your routine. As per her advice, make sure you chew your food and eat all of your meals mindfully. We spend so much time rushing about and cramming food in where we can, but savouring a meal—slowing down and really enjoying it—isn’t just good for feeling satiated and preventing over-eating, it’s also good for our long-suffering guts.
“Mindfulness isn’t just about stress management, it’s also key to notice how you’re eating your food,” says Stephenson. “Are you eating on the go, rushing your meals, eating with distraction, or barely chewing? All of these things have an impact. Chewing thoroughly can help to reduce bloating, gas and digestive discomfort.” Next time you sit down to eat, make sure you chew each mouthful until it can be chewed no more, and pay attention to how your body (and mind) feels afterwards.
This article was first published in British Vogue.