An important reminder: while there are many ways to manage IBS at home, you should still talk to a healthcare professional about your IBS symptoms to get a diagnosis or advice about what kinds of at-home treatments might work best for you.
What is IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or sometimes known as ‘spastic colon’ or ‘irritable colon’, means that you have sensitive bowels that can be easily ‘irritated’. Generally speaking, more women than men experience IBS and typically symptoms start to appear around 20 to 30 years of age.
Some of the symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain and bloating with changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation. If you have been diagnosed with IBS, or you think you might have it, you’re not alone. IBS is very common and affects around 1 in 7 people worldwide.
The most common symptoms of IBS include:
- Abdominal pain
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Feeling of fullness and bloating
- Mucous in stools
Are there different types of IBS?
Not everyone will experience the same IBS symptoms. There are three subtypes of IBS. While all types of IBS tend to cause abdominal pain, different subtypes of IBS will cause unique changes in your bowel habits:
IBS subtypes include:
- IBS-C (IBS with constipation): This is the most common subtype of IBS. If you have IBS-C, it probably means you’re probably experiencing infrequent bowel movements with hard and lumpy stools that are difficult to pass.
- IBS-D (IBS with diarrhea): This is the second most common subtype of IBS. If you have IBS-D, it probably means you’re experiencing frequent bowel movements and loose and watery stools
- IBS-M (IBS with mixed bowel habits): If you have IBS-M, it means you’re experiencing both constipation and diarrhea. If you have this subtype you may notice your bathroom habits alternate between one and the other.
Treating IBS at home
While there is no cure for IBS, there are many things you can do to reduce the severity of symptoms.
You may not see immediate improvement with lifestyle and at-home remedies (one cup of peppermint tea won’t do the trick) however, by adapting some healthy gut habits you may start to experience long-term improvements in your IBS.
Some at-home IBS treatments you can start today include:
1. Avoid problem foods
If a weekly treat of fried fish and chips has sent you running for a bathroom, then you probably understand the havoc that some foods can play on our gut. Certain foods and drinks disrupt how your digestive tract functions which can cause an increase in IBS symptoms.
Some common trigger food for IBS include:
- Fatty foods: such as fried foods, some meat products, dairy, and oils, and other foods high
- Spicy foods: including hot-sauces, fresh chilies, or curries. The capsaicin in hot peppers, for example, causes intestinal spasms and other symptoms of IBS
- Sweets or chewing gum: artificial sweeteners in sweets or gum can contain IBS irritants such as sorbitol and mannitol
- Caffeine-containing foods and beverages: coffee and chocolate can increase IBS diarrhea symptoms
- Wheat products: including, bread and pasta, can cause digestion to slow down leading to constipation
- Beans and lentils: these can often contain hard to digest carbohydrates which can increase the symptoms of IBS
2. Try the low FODMAP diet
An effective at-home remedy for IBS symptoms includes making changes to your diet or avoiding certain foods, such as FODMAPs. Types of carbohydrates called FODMAPs may cause digestive upset.
The low FODMAP diet eliminates these foods to improve digestive symptoms and was developed as a drug-free way for people to manage their IBS.
High FODMAP foods to avoid on the diet include:
- Wheat products: such as bread, pasta, and breakfast cereals
- Dairy products: such as milk and ice-cream
- Vegetables: such as onion and garlic
- Fruits: including apples, mangoes, peaches, pears, plums, and watermelon
- Artificial sweeteners: such as high-fructose corn syrup and honey
Low FODMAP foods allowed on the diet include:
- Vegetables: green beans, spinach, eggplant and tomatoes
- Fruits: kiwis, mandarins, bananas, and blueberries
- Nuts: almonds, pecans, pine nuts and pecans
- Meat: chicken, fish, lamb, beef, pork, and prawns
- Seeds: pumpkin and sesame seeds
The low FODMAP diet has been shown effective in over 15 clinical studies. The benefits of the diet include reduced bloating, pain, and constipation.
While a FODMAP diet can be an effective drug-free way to manage IBS, some people aren’t recommended to follow a FODMAP diet (for instance, pregnant women or people who are underweight). Additionally, some people find the diet overly restrictive or difficult to follow.
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3. Increase fiber intake
You might think fiber is a no-go for people with IBS-C, but it can actually help you manage a range of IBS symptoms.
Make sure to choose high fiber foods that are also low in FODMAP. This will help ensure that additional fiber won't cause excess gas and bloating.
Some high-fiber, low FODMAP foods include:
- Green beans
- Brazil nuts
- Chia seeds
- Brown rice
If you find you experience more diarrhea as part of your IBS-D, then try and add more soluble fiber to your diet.
Short-chain soluble fiber (like you find in white bread) can result in increased gas, abdominal pain, bloating, and flatulence. However, long-chain soluble dietary fiber, such as psyllium, can reduce IBS symptoms and decrease diarrhea.
Long-chain soluble fiber stays in the digestive tract for longer and can add bulk to your stools, slowing down your bowel movements.
No matter what subtype of IBS you experience, taking time to unwind and relax is a great way to help manage your symptoms at home. IBS is often worsened during long-term or acute stress, so one of the simplest ways to ease symptoms is by physically calming your body.
Some at-home relaxation techniques include:
- Deep breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing): this practice can induce a state of deep relaxation, to reduce pain and bloating in IBS.
- Visualization and positive imagery: shifting your focus away from abdominal pain helps to improve digestive symptoms. Try to imagine yourself in a peaceful and natural setting, such as relaxing on a beach.
- Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR): in this practice, you bring your attention to a particular muscle group and then relax it, then move on to the next. In one study, an 8 week PMR program improved IBS symptoms in half of the patients.
However you like to relax, try and find some time in your day to focus on yourself and bring some calm into your daily life.
5. Listen to a hypnotherapy recording
Did you know you can do hypnotherapy from the comfort of your own home? Gut-directed hypnotherapy programs are a good way to improve symptoms of IBS and are easily available
Gut-directed hypnotherapy has also been proven to be as effective as following a FODMAP diet but without the need for complicated food tracking.
In hypnotherapy, the therapist guides you to focus on soothing images and thoughts as you learn to relax your intestinal muscles. Recordings of sessions can be accessed at home from smartphone apps such as Nerva.
Several studies have shown that a 6-week program significantly reduces symptoms of IBS. Additionally, it has been shown to be especially useful in people with IBS who have existing mental health issues.
Hypnotherapy is thought to work by:
- Lowering perceptions of pain in the brain
- Reducing sensitivity to pain in the gut
- Improving the speed of passage of contents through the gut
6. Get moving
Another easy and effective at-home treatment for IBS is exercise. Exercise is a natural painkiller and releases endorphins which is good for painful IBS cramps. It also helps you to manage your IBS because exercise can relieve stress and stimulate normal intestinal contractions.
In one study, exercise was found to decrease the severity of symptoms in people with IBS. Additionally, lower rates of physical activity were associated with more severe IBS symptoms.
If you have not exercised for a while, there’s no need to start running marathons. Even moderate exercise can help manage IBS symptoms. Start slow with gentle exercises such as:
7. Try Yoga
Yoga is another gentle at-home exercise that can calm your nerves and bring IBS relief. The 3000 year old practice combines breathing, meditation, and movement. Yoga has been linked with many health benefits, including the reduction of IBS gut symptoms.
While there is little scientific data around the effectiveness of specific yoga positions for gut health, yoga has certain poses designed to aid in digestion, including:
- Marjaryasana-bitilasana (cat-cow)
- Adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog)
- Bhujanga (cobra pose)
Yoga as a practice has been proven to help with IBS. Research has shown it has a beneficial effect on the autonomic nervous system that can restore the gut-brain connection.
Additionally, a recent study in adolescents with IBS showed that yoga was helpful in managing their digestive symptoms. After four weeks of 1-hour daily yoga sessions, the study participants had significantly reduced the severity of their gastrointestinal issues.
8. Peppermint oil
Another simple at-home solution for IBS includes peppermint (what could be easier than pouring a cup of tea?). Peppermint is a herb in the mint family that is an ancient herbal remedy. Peppermint is used to treat IBS and has been shown to relieve symptoms such as cramping and gas.
A review published in 2014 showed that peppermint oil significantly improves overall symptoms of IBS. Additionally, peppermint has been shown to be more effective than prescription antispasmodic medications in relieving IBS symptoms.
Peppermint oil is thought to calm symptoms of IBS by:
- Reducing sensitivity to pain
- Promoting the growth of ‘friendly’ bacteria in the gut
- Relaxing the smooth muscles of the intestines
- Having an anti-inflammatory effect
Peppermint oil is well tolerated by most people. However, very occasionally, peppermint oil may cause side-effects such as gastric reflux.
Many people with gut issues will have heard about the benefits of probiotics for digestion, especially as some popular varieties of yogurts promote probiotics as a way to balance your gut health.
Probiotics are live bacteria found in supplements and some foods. Live-bacteria might sound a bit strange, but it’s actually safe, similar to your natural gut flora (aka your naturally beneficial gut bacteria), and can provide health benefits.
If you want to give probiotics a try, some fermented foods that contain probiotics include:
Just like the name says, prebiotics are a kind of precursor to having healthy probiotics in your gut. Prebiotics are types of indigestible fiber. Think of them as food for your probiotics (the healthy bacteria) to eat.
Prebiotics nourish the beneficial bacteria in your gut. They have been shown to be beneficial to overall health and have been shown useful in treating IBS.
In one study, IBS-related anxiety was reduced after just 4 weeks of taking prebiotic (let’s hear a tiny round of applause for these microorganisms!).
Want to feed your healthy gut flora? Here are some common foods containing prebiotics:
- Chicory root
11. Apply heat
Another simple, soothing way to treat IBS symptoms at home is with therapeutic heat.
Direct, intense (but safe!) heat applied to the abdomen can relax the digestive tract and offer relief for those suffering from IBS. The warmth from a heat pad or hot water bottle may have a calming effect. In addition to psychological benefits, there is evidence that heat can provide pain relief.
Want to try this out at home? Place the heat pad or hot water bottle on the part of your belly that is most painful. Make sure you take extra caution not to use excessive heat as it may cause burns.
12. Use OTC treatments (with caution)
If all else fails, you can turn to over-the-counter (OTC) treatments from your local pharmacy for IBS related relief.
There are many available OTC treatments for digestion issues, such as Immodium or Pepto-Bismol. OTC medications may improve symptoms of IBS, or make them worse depending on how you use them.
When it comes to treating your IBS at-home with medications, it’s important to consult a doctor or pharmacist first and always to follow the instructions on the label.
When to see a doctor
Still not feeling relief? It might be time to consult a healthcare professional. While at-home treatments can provide effective and long-term relief, a professional opinion can help you maintain better gut health.
If you experience any of the symptoms listed below, make sure you see a healthcare professional immediately. These symptoms may suggest you have a condition other than IBS that cannot be treated at home.
- Heart palpitations
- Bleeding from the anus or bloody stools
- Rapid weight loss
- Constant fever
- Pale skin
IBS may cause painful symptoms but there are a range of simple things you can do at home to start feeling better and improve your gut health. Some common at-home treatments for IBS include relaxation exercises, hypnotherapy, physical activity, dietary changes, applying heat, and consuming peppermint oil or other supplements (such as prebiotics and probiotics). As always, if you notice a sudden change in your symptoms it might be time to consult a healthcare professional who may prescribe medications or provide you with advice on how to continue with at-home remedies.