Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It’s a painful, challenging, and sometimes downright embarrassing condition that can have you running to the bathroom at the worst times.

Fortunately, IBS is a very manageable condition with the right care and strategies to help control your symptoms. If you suspect that you have IBS, the first step is to consult with your doctor to determine the best care plan for you. But did you know that there are also some at-home ways to relieve your discomfort?

woman suffering from irritable bowel syndrome or IBS

First, what is IBS?

IBS is a chronic condition that affects both the stomach and intestines, and studies have revealed that it's more common in women than men. IBS can affect the body in several ways: by influencing how food moves through the digestive tract, as well as how your brain interprets signals from the gut. 

According to Dr. Asma Khapra, Assistant Clinical Professor at UVA School of Medicine and Partner Gastroenterologist at Mahana Therapeutics, the most common symptoms of IBS are stomach pain or cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and an urgency to go to the bathroom.

She suggests "a combined and holistic approach to treatment," including dietary modifications, medications, exercise, stress reduction techniques, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help manage the condition. 

Wait, how can exercise help improve IBS symptoms?

​​According to Erin Judge, RDN CPT, a Registered Dietitian and owner of Gutivate, a virtual nutrition practice for IBS and other digestive disorders, 30 to 60 minutes of moderate exercise a day (think brisk walking, swimming, or cycling) can greatly reduce IBS symptoms, including abdominal pain and bloating. 

It’s not exactly known why exercise helps with IBS, says Judge, but it's likely related to increased blood flow to the gut — which improves digestion and motility — improved nervous system regulation, which helps lessen any stress-related symptoms, and strengthened abdominal and pelvic floor muscles, which can aid in digestion.  

The type of exercise that you choose also matters, because high-intensity and long-duration exercise, like HIIT workouts or running, can increase stress on the body and have the complete opposite effect.

If you have IBS, Judge recommends finding a lower-intensity form of exercise — like yoga — that you enjoy and want to do consistently, so you can reap the benefits of movement without triggering a flare-up.  

woman in warrior pose

What about diet and nutrition?

When it comes to IBS, nutrition is extremely individualized, which is why knowing what foods trigger flare-ups is key to managing the condition. Still, Judge shares a few evergreen tips that can help anyone with IBS avoid post-meal discomfort: 

  • Eat regular meals: Try to avoid skipping meals if you have IBS. Eating consistent meals throughout the day, whether that means 3 large or 5-6 smaller meals, keeps the gut stable and helps avoid stress on the body, which can make symptoms worse. It also prevents a gut overload from eating too much in one sitting. 

  • Chew your food well: Mom was right — you should chew your food before you swallow. Thoroughly chewing your food means your gut has to do less work to digest, which helps many people tolerate more foods.

You may be wondering, are there specific foods to avoid to prevent flare-ups? While it’s personal to everyone, Judge generally recommends avoiding a few common triggers:

  • Raw and cruciferous vegetables: Eat your veggies… but cook them first. Raw veggies can be hard to break down, potentially leading to gas, bloating, and constipation. Cooking vegetables makes them easier to digest.

  • Saturated fats: Highly processed foods, like saturated fats, can slow down digestion and have the potential to be malabsorbed by the gut, leading to diarrhea. 

  • Alcohol: Alcohol is a known gut irritant that can worsen symptoms and cause flare-ups, though experts say that small amounts of red or white wine, and spirits like vodka and whiskey can be okay in moderation — it’s all about knowing your body!

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Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for IBS: What you need to know

Did you know that stress relief techniques like meditation and even therapy can help put you on the road to recovery when it comes to IBS? Think about it: have you ever felt anxious, and then sick to your stomach? That’s because the emotional parts of your brain are linked to your intestines, also called the mind-gut axis.  

According to research, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can improve IBS symptoms by helping you manage your body’s response to stress. CBT encourages you to change your thought patterns and reframe negative thoughts into more positive ones. Over time, you retrain your brain to better manage stress, and your body will follow suit. 

Mahana IBS is an FDA-cleared prescription digital therapeutic that uses CBT techniques to help you manage IBS symptoms for the long term through easy, daily lessons you can do on your smartphone. Nearly 2 out of 3 patients who have used the program report better bowel function, reduced abdominal pain, and a higher quality of life. You can talk to your doctor about whether Mahana IBS is right for you or visit their provider finder to search for a clinician near you.  

If you’re struggling with IBS, there is hope! Having a discussion with your healthcare team and implementing lifestyle changes can help you take control of your IBS and get back to living your best life. 

Erin Pettis is a content strategist, freelance writer, and women’s health advocate. She lives in New York City and holds an MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business.