Dealing with IBS Symptoms: A Pain in the Butt

Words: Robyn Samuels

Feeling a little ‘backed up’? Constantly ‘dropping the kids off at the pool’? These symptoms can be a real pain in the butt. Before you self-diagnose and visit WebMD, only to realise that you have three days to live – have you considered that it might be a common case of irritable bowel syndrome? If not, we’re here to tell what IBS is and explore potential remedies.

what causes irritable bowel syndrome

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

You know that “would you rather have constipation or diarrhoea?” question… well, with IBS you don’t have to choose. You basically get two for the price of one, except, it’s the world’s shittiest deal. If you have smooth-operating bowels, good on you. But for approximately 8 percent (4.6 million people) of the South African population, this is not the case.

IBS, also known as ‘irritable bowel syndrome’ and ‘spastic colon’ is a common gastrointestinal (GI) disorder that affects the stomach and intestines. Symptoms range from bouts of constipation and diarrhoea to bloating, flatulence and abdominal pain.

Luckily, for some, these symptoms occur intermittently. But, and this is a huge but – others have the misfortune of dealing with chronic constipation/diarrhoea, whilst seeking refuge in bathroom stalls and writhing with abdominal pain. If you experience irregular stool movement for about three months and it seems to be a pattern, chances are good that you might have irritable bowel syndrome.

What Causes a Spastic Colon?

But wait, how does one even get IBS? It depends – some cases are hereditary, you might find that another member in your family has similar GI issues. In other cases, it can be anxiety or stress-induced, and if that isn’t enough, there are also instances where people experience IBS-like symptoms as a result of coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity.

Most people go undiagnosed, but if the above symptoms sound familiar, it’s worth consulting your physician. Diagnoses are usually straightforward, as IBS is pretty common today, with younger populations being diagnosed. If your symptoms are more nuanced, your doctor might recommend a rectal examination or colonoscopy – fun right?

IBS Solutions & Remedies:

Although there is no cure for IBS, there are useful approaches to alleviate associated symptoms. Because IBS is case-specific, what works for you, might not work for others. Besides seeking professional help from a dietician, physician or using over-the-counter medication to soothe flare-ups, the best thing you can do is eat intuitively and know how your body responds to trigger foods. Here are some common remedies for dealing with IBS.


When it comes to IBS, food is not the enemy – you might just not be able to digest certain foods – and the last thing you want to do is follow fad diets. Following a low FODMAP diet is a common approach to identifying and eliminating trigger foods from your diet.

The idea is to work through a list of IBS-problem foods that are high in fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols (FODMAP). Essentially, these foods contain non-digestible short-chain carbohydrates. Over time, you reintroduce specific foods into your diet, one by one, to help pinpoint what might not agree with your tum.

These are some common high FODMAP foods:


Foods that are high in oligosaccharides include certain vegetables, fruit, grains and legumes. Most people with IBS have difficulty digesting leafy greens such as spinach/kale; legumes and cabbage. Sadly, many of these trigger foods are actually great sources of iron and vitamins, so if you are worried about not getting your five-a-day, your doctor might suggest oral supplements. These are some common foods that are high in oligosaccharides.

Grains: wheat and rye
Fruit: raspberries, sweet melon, figs, bananas, blueberries
Vegetables: white onion, leeks, garlic, leafy greens (kale), green/red cabbage, Jerusalem artichoke, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts.
Legumes: all beans, peas (green peas, chickpeas) and lentils. While legumes may be a powerhouse legume, people that suffer from IBS are likely to struggle with digesting them. If you consume beans, you may end up with serious flatulence.


Disaccharides can be thought of as foods with double sugar bonds – think ‘foods high in sucrose and lactose’. When these disaccharides are consumed, the body works to break more complex carbs into simple carbohydrates (monosaccharides) to be absorbed by the small intestine. But, for people who suffer from IBS, this isn’t easy. As a result, the body may struggle to absorb these components easily, thus retaining them and forcing water into the small intestine, that could lead to symptoms of bloating, flatulence and constipation or diarrhoea. Foods that are high in disaccharides are mostly found in dairy products like cheese, yoghurt and ice cream – basically all the great-tasting foods.

Most would recommend eating plain/Bulgarian yoghurt as it contains live cultures and promotes a healthy gut. However, this can be counterintuitive if you have irritable bowel syndrome coupled with lactose intolerance. A safe approach might be taking probiotics, which generally helps regulate a healthy gut.

Common foods: dairy products (lactose), bread, cereals, chocolate, white flour, crisps, etc.


Complex carbs may be difficult to digest, but some monosaccharides can be diet triggers too – can’t win with IBS, can you? Monosaccharides are mainly high in fructose (fruit sugars). It’s important to note that while these foods may be high in monosaccharides, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are intolerant to them.

Common foods: apples, pears, watermelon, mango and sweeteners.


Polyols are essentially alcohol sugars that are organic compounds and occur in stone fruit, among other foods. Because some might have difficulty digesting high-polyol foods, your gut bacteria will attempt to break these compounds down through fermentation, releasing gas and short-chain fatty acids in the process. If these foods are consumed in excess, it could lead to – you guessed it – bloating, diarrhoea and flatulence.

Common foods: cherries, plums, mushrooms, cauliflower, products containing xylitol or branded as ‘sugar-free’.

IBS & Stress

Consuming trigger foods may result in IBS flare-ups, but high-stress levels, anxiety and depression have also been linked to IBS. In high-stress environments, turning to coffee and other vices is normally the answer, but you might want to limit your caffeine intake. This also includes some types of tea that are high in caffeine.

Ensure that you track your diet when you are stressed, as we tend to either eat less or more. Investigate ways to balance your stress levels, as it tends to aggravate symptoms and remember that therapy isn’t only great for the mind, but the digestive system too.

Tips for Dealing with IBS:

Each person might experience IBS in different ways, and while it cannot be cured, these are general tips for dealing with IBS.

what is spastic colon?

  • Keep a food journal and track which foods affect your bowels and try to avoid them.
  • Drink room-temperature water, it’s more difficult to digest cold liquids.
  • Avoid drinking water with your meal, rather drink liquids an hour before or after eating.
  • Stay well hydrated, generally, it could help loosen the stool during bouts of constipation.
  • Beverages like peppermint tea or drinking peppermint drops with hot water might alleviate cramps. Especially helpful for people with IBS that are menstruating.
  • Low/medium intensity exercise is recommended, it also helps manage stress.
  • Raw white onion and garlic can be tricky to avoid when cooking. If you want to mimic these flavours, consider substituting them with onion powder and garlic oil.
  • If you do suffer from lactose intolerance, rely on milk alternatives and if a recipe calls for cream, opt for coconut cream instead.
  • It’s also worth checking with your physician or consulting a dietician for a food allergy test, to help identify which foods you may be intolerant to.

We know, it’s not easy avoiding some trigger foods, but the best thing you can do is take the time to get to know your body/digestive system and its response to different foods.

Want to better Understand Coeliac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity?

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