Special Health Reports

Managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome


Managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome

IBS is a gastrointestinal disorder in which your gut becomes more sensitive and the muscles of your digestive system have abnormal contractions that affect your bowel movements. IBS cannot be cured, but the good news is it can be managed to minimize the effect on your overall health and quality of life. This report explores how your digestive system works and what science knows about this mysterious disorder. We’ll cover the types of IBS, how it’s diagnosed, and best of all, what you can do to control IBS instead of having it control you.

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Do you ever suffer with abdominal pain, uncomfortable bloating or embarrassing gas? Do you find yourself avoiding social functions or coming in late to work because of debilitating pain? Do you need to run to the bathroom after you eat a meal? Or conversely, do you feel like you need to move your bowels but can’t?

If so, you may be suffering from IBS, a common gastrointestinal disorder that can cause severe abdominal pain. If you have IBS, your gut becomes more sensitive and the muscles of your digestive system have abnormal contractions that affect your bowel movements.

The good news is that although IBS is uncomfortable, it does not permanently harm your body. And, with the right information you can learn to manage the symptoms so you can lead a normal, active, healthy life.

That’s why Harvard Medical School experts created Managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome to help you understand all about IBS – the causes, how it’s diagnosed, how to treat the symptoms and how to get relief. 

Here’s a small sample of what you’ll learn:

  • 6 symptoms you might not recognize as features of IBS
  • The main 3 different types of IBS
  • How staying calm can lower your risk of triggering IBS. Scientific study proves it.
  • The so-called “healthy foods” that can trigger nasty stomach distress.
  • Pain-free way your doctor can diagnose IBS.
  • 5 simple strategies to help you deal with an IBS flare-up
  • The autoimmune disease that is often misdiagnosed as IBS.
  • The 3 most effective treatments for IBS symptoms.
  • And much more.

Prepared by the editors of Harvard Health Publishing in consultation with Anthony Lembo, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Director, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Motility Center, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. (2022)

About Harvard Medical School Guides

Harvard Medical School Guides deliver compact, practical information on important health concerns. These publications are smaller in scope than our Special Health Reports, but they are written in the same clear, easy-to-understand language, and they provide the authoritative health advice you expect from Harvard Health Publishing.

Get enough fiber

If you suffer mainly from IBS-C, adding fiber to your diet can help regulate your bowel movements and reduce abdominal discomfort from constipation. There is a good chance you don’t get enough fiber, as most Americans eat less than half the suggested amounts of daily fiber. On average, American adults eat 10 to 15 grams of total fiber per day, while the USDA recommends 25 grams a day for women and 38 grams a day for men up to age 50. Women and men age 50 or older should have 21 and 30 daily grams, respectively.

However, simply loading up on extra fiber is not the best move. You need to consume the right kind and in the right way. There are two different types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Some foods contain just one type, while others contain both types. Here is a look at how they work in your digestive system.

Soluble fiber. When you eat soluble fiber, it attracts water in your stomach and turns into a gel-like substance. This slows digestion, which makes you feel “full” more quickly, and helps to soften stools. Softer stools can move more easily through the GI tract. Soluble fiber is found in foods like oat bran, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, and some fruits and vegetables.

Insoluble fiber. Unlike soluble fiber, insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water. It stays intact as it moves through the GI tract. This adds bulk to stool, which helps prevent constipation. Insoluble fiber is found in wheat bran, whole grains, the skins of fruits and vegetables, popcorn, and dried fruit.

Your goal is to add high-fiber foods to each meal. However, be careful about eating a lot of fiber at once. Overdoing it can cause gas, bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps as your gut bacteria try to process all the new fiber. These problems go away after a while as your digestive system gets used to the higher fiber levels, but you can avoid these issues by adding extra fiber gradually rather than all at once.

Ways to add fiber. Here are some additional tips that can help you make the transition to a higher-fiber diet.

  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables daily. In general, one serving is asingle piece of fruit or a half-cup of raw fruits or vegetables, or a cup ofleafy greens.
  • Include fruits, vegetables, or both with every meal. For instance, include fruit with breakfast and as a snack, and vegetables with lunch and dinner. Try to fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits at a typical meal.
  • Eat more beans, lentils, and peas, which are healthy sources of protein and abundant fiber. You can include them either as plant-based protein in meatless dishes or as the starch side in place of grains.
  • Rely on nuts, seeds, and fruit for snacks. Or add them to other items like yogurt, oatmeal, salads, and stir-fries.
  • Replace refined grains like white rice with whole grains like brown rice, wild rice, or bulgur. For pasta, look for versions made from quinoa or pulses like chickpeas and lentils.


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