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Dietitians Dish: Better diet can mean better bowel function, quality of life

By By Lindsey Adams
March 20, 2012 at midnight
Updated March 19, 2012 at 10:20 p.m.

Lindsay Adams

Although not typically a topic of conversation, irritable bowel syndrome is an issue that affects approximately 58 million individuals.

The symptoms, which can include chronic abdominal pain, belching, flatulence, heartburn, mucus in the stool, constipation alternating with diarrhea, and nausea are not exactly pleasant.

No specific cause of the syndrome has been identified, but factors, such as heredity, lifestyle, hormones, allergies, an infection and an excess amount of bacteria growing in the intestine, may contribute to the development of this condition.

Individuals who have the syndrome have a very sensitive intestinal tract. Stress, hormonal changes and diet can all trigger the syndrome.

The colon contains nerves that connect to the brain. Stress can stimulate spasms in the colon, which lead to abdominal pain and cramping. Women are more likely to have the syndrome than men, and the syndrome often worsens around the time of menstrual cycle, which has led researchers to believe that hormones are related to the syndrome. Lastly, diet can play a large role in the management of the syndrome, which is a good thing. You have the ability to reduce symptoms by making healthy changes to your diet.

To start, establish regular eating patterns and meal times. Eating large meals often aggravate the syndrome, so you may find it helpful to eat small, frequent meals. Also make sure to chew your food slowly and thoroughly, which can help reduce gassiness and aid digestion.

Always remember the three F's of bowel function: fluid, fitness and fiber. Fluid and fitness are easy; just make sure to drink adequate fluids, approximately six to eight cups daily, and incorporate physical activity into your daily routine. Adults should typically aim for approximately 25-38 grams of fiber daily. Foods that are high in fiber include fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Fiber helps move food through your intestines, but incorporate these high fiber foods into your diet gradually as they may cause gas, bloating and cramping if added too quickly. Additionally, when you are experiencing a bout of the syndrome, a low-fiber diet may be better tolerated.

Consumption of high sugar and high fat foods are also common triggers of the syndrome, so stay away from these bad boys. Sugar alcohols, found in artificial sweeteners, alcohol and caffeine may all stimulate your intestines, which can cause diarrhea.

You also may want to limit spicy foods or gas-forming foods, such as beans, barley, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, nuts, figs and soybeans. Note that some individuals with the syndrome have a hard time tolerating raw veggies.

Dietary intolerances and allergies also may be a trigger. Try keeping a food diary when you are having a bout of the syndrome to help identify your individual triggers because, although I mentioned common antagonists of the syndrome, all foods can affect individuals differently.

If your syndrome is accompanied by anemia, fever, persistent diarrhea, rectal bleeding, weight loss and nocturnal symptoms, check with your doctor to make sure there is not another underlying issue.

So, if you suffer from the syndrome, remember that a better diet can mean better bowel function and quality of life.

Lindsay Adams is a registered dietitian. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.

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