IBS attacks can strike anytime, but usually and with greater intensity after a meal. The average duration of an IBS flare-up is two to four days, however, they can last anywhere between a few hours to a couple of months at a time.
Symptoms of IBS, including their severity, frequency, and duration, vary from person to person, although they are more prevalent in women. IBS may also be mistaken for other digestive disorders because it shares similar symptoms with conditions such as inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), coeliac disease and colon cancer, and food sensitivities like lactose intolerance.
What can make my IBS attack worse?
A number of psychological and physical factors can trigger, aggravate, and prolong your IBS attacks. Below are the most common ones:
1. Stress and anxiety
While stress and anxiety primarily affect the mind, they can affect other parts of the body—particularly the bowel, through a connection called the gut brain axis—as well.
If you’re under a lot of stress or experiencing anxiety, don’t be surprised if your IBS acts up as well. Your IBS attack can worsen or last longer than usual, depending on your ability to cope with your psychological distress.
2. Large meals
IBS makes your gastrointestinal tract extra-sensitive. Compared to smaller meals, large meals put more pressure on your already-sensitive gastrointestinal tract to digest and process the large amount of foods you ate, and exacerbate your IBS symptoms.
There is a tendency for the foods you ate to get stuck in your stomach and colon, resulting in constipation, bloating and abdominal pain. On the other hand, the foods can also pass very quickly without being completely digested and produce bouts of diarrhoea, flatulence and abdominal discomfort.
3. Sugar malabsorption
Your body’s inability to breakdown and absorb certain types of sugar such as sucrose, fructose, lactose and sorbitol (whether naturally occurring or artificially added as sweetener) can aggravate symptoms of your IBS when you consume foods that contain these substances.
Undigested sugar travels to your large intestine where it is fermented by gut bacteria, producing gas and short-chain fatty acids that cause stomach pains, bloating, diarrhoea and other symptoms that may compound your IBS.
4. Infection and inflammation
Infection, usually accompanied by inflammation, triggers or aggravates IBS attacks in individuals who already have this condition.
IBS is said to be more common in women, most likely because they have another factor exclusive to their psychological makeup that sets off IBS symptoms. IBS flare ups tend to occur or become worse around the time women have their menstrual period, which may be associated with the presence of female reproductive hormones.
Estrogen and progesterone attach to cell receptors in women’s GI tracts and affect certain digestive functions. When there is a decrease in the levels of these hormones, women experience slower passage of food through their system and a longer time before they are able to empty their bowels. Reduced amounts of these hormones also influence how much pain they can tolerate, making women more susceptible to stomach pains and cramps.
Are there ways to shorten the duration of my IBS attack?
The good news is that there are ways for you to relieve yourself of your IBS symptoms and possibly shorten it.
1. Hot water compress
Applying heat to your stomach using a hot water bag or bottle can help relieve any discomfort from spasms by improving blood circulation and relaxing your abdominal muscles.
2. Herbal teas
Herbal teas have been used as natural home remedies to treat a number of ailments and promote relaxation. Peppermint tea helps soothe your intestines, ease stomach aches, and reduce bloating, while chamomile relieves muscle contractions with its anti-inflammatory properties. Tea from ground anise seeds aids in regulating digestion and managing constipation.
3. Taking small, frequent meals
Eating smaller meals throughout the day will make it easier for your stomach to digest the food and will make it quicker for you to arrest symptoms of IBS before they become worse. Taking your time when eating doesn’t only allow you to enjoy every bite, but also helps you pay more attention to your body and how it reacts to the foods you eat.
4. Light exercise
Light exercises can relieve symptoms of IBS by helping restore proper intestinal functions and contractions, and reduce stress.
If natural treatments don’t work, you can turn to any of these medications to address specific issues brought about by your IBS attack:
- Antimotility drugs address diarrhoea by slowing the passage of food through your digestive tract.
- Antispasmodics suppress muscle contractions and help ease abdominal pain.
- Laxatives relieve constipation by increasing bowel movement.
- Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) that were intended to cure depression also provide relief against cramps and stomach pains.
An IBS attack can last for a short while or go on for an extended period of time, depending on the severity of your condition. The good news is there are ways to experience relief from its symptoms sooner than later. If you want to effectively manage your irritable bowel syndrome, it is best to consult a qualified healthcare professional.
We can help you manage your IBS attacks
Our team of accredited dietitians and nutritionists have been helping patients manage their gut and bowel health issues, including IBS, through personalised dietary treatments and professional guidance. Contact us at (07) 3071-7405 between 8am and 6pm Monday to Friday and book an appointment with any of our nutrition experts.