April is National IBS month, which aims to raise awareness of the chronic condition, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which affects around 12 million across the UK alone. For this post we collaborated with Chloe Hall, Dietitian and Diet Adviser to The IBS Network charity, to help us dispel IBS related myths.
1. You can be diagnosed with IBS on symptoms alone
If you have symptoms, such as an altered bowel habit, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea or constipation then don’t self-diagnose yourself with IBS. Don’t let a professional tell you it’s IBS unless you have had the appropriate blood tests to rule out other conditions, such as coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Avoid making any changes to your diet until you have a diagnosis as this may affect the results of your blood tests; if you have cut out gluten, the blood test won’t be able to detect if you have coeliac disease.
2. “It’s just a bit of IBS!”
If you suffer with IBS, then hearing this can make you feel as if your symptoms aren’t valid and that you are making a fuss about nothing. This is not the case! IBS affects 10-20% of the population and can lead to symptoms like altered bowel habit, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea or constipation, which can really impact on people’s lives. If you are struggling to get people to take your symptoms seriously and need help managing your condition, then ask your GP to refer you to a Registered Dietitian. Great advice and support can also be found through The IBS Network, the UK’s national charity which supports people living with IBS.
3. Your IBS is caused by what you are eating
The cause of IBS, even now, still isn’t fully understood. For some people, symptoms come out of nowhere, for others they may be linked to anxiety or stress or be the result of a course of strong antibiotics to treat another illness. Adapting your diet can be part of the management plan to help reduce your symptoms but the food you are eating isn’t the cause of your IBS and you aren’t doing any damage to your body by eating it; your gut may have become sensitive to the food.
4. A restrictive diet is the only treatment for IBS
Unfortunately, there is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach for IBS. Changing your diet can be an effective treatment plan for some but won’t work for everyone. Other treatments to help manage symptoms include medication, psychological therapies, exercise such as yoga, probiotics, gut-directed hypnotherapy (studies have indicated that it may help to reduce symptoms), or a combination of these. Work with a trusted healthcare professional with the required expertise in this area to devise the best management plan for you.
5. The low FODMAP diet will cure IBS
FODMAPs stands for Fermentable, Oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. These are carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed and foods high in FODMAPs may increase symptoms in some people with IBS. Common high FODMAP foods include garlic, onion, apples and bread. The diet consists of three phases: 4-8 weeks of a low FODMAP diet, a re-introduction stage to identify your individual tolerances to certain foods and a long-term modified diet. The diet has been shown to be effective in approximately 70% of people with IBS but is not a cure; instead, it is a way of reducing and managing symptoms, so they may not completely disappear. It is strongly advised that the diet should not be attempted without the guidance of a Registered Dietitian trained in the low FODMAP diet as it could lead to an unnecessarily restricted diet, nutritional deficiencies or giving up on the diet because it can be difficult to do it alone.
6. You need to cut out gluten
Some people may have non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, however, the evidence is unclear. Gluten is a protein that is found in certain cereal grains, such as wheat which contains lots of other components. If you were eating a piece of bread, for example, and have a reaction it’s difficult to tell if
that is due to the gluten or other components found in the bread, such as fructans, which is a FODMAP. The evidence for a gluten-free diet in IBS is conflicting and gluten-free products are usually higher in fat, salt and sugar and lower in fibre than standard products so at the moment the British Dietetic Association don’t recommend this for IBS.
7. You need to eliminate dairy
Some people during their diagnosis of IBS may have a hydrogen breath test and may have been advised to have a diet low in lactose. Reducing lactose may, also, be part of the low FODMAP diet, depending on what you have been advised by your Dietitian. Lactose is the sugar found in dairy products and even if you have been advised to reduce the lactose in your diet, this does not mean that you have to cut out dairy completely. Certain cheeses such as Cheddar and Edam, as well as other dairy products, such as cream and butter are low in lactose. You can also purchase lactose-free dairy products. Dairy products are a good source of calcium, which is important for bone health, and Iodine, important for thyroid function. There isn’t any good evidence that going milk-free can improve IBS symptoms but if you are thinking about cutting it out please speak to a healthcare professional to get guidance on appropriate substitutes.
About The IBS Network
The IBS Network is the national charity that helps people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and has provided support to those with the condition and to healthcare professionals for over 26 years. Funding for the charity is received from a number of sources, including annual memberships, an online shop for purchasing the ‘Can’t Wait’ card, Radar keys and other useful aids, in addition to income from legacies.
Members of the charity’s community can gain access to a whole range of services including the IBS Self-Care Programme, a specialist IBS nurse helpline, individual advice from healthcare professionals, a growing network of support groups, an online forum plus factsheets, research and updates via magazines, email newsletters and other supporting material.