11 Things Your Doctor Wants You to Know About IBS

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Paige Greenfield Fowler on September 17, 2020
  • Doctor
    From the Experts
    Do you frequently experience diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, or abdominal pain? Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may be to blame. A gastroenterologist can help determine what’s going on and find the best treatment for you. But before you step into the exam room, gastrointestinal (GI) docs share what you need to know about IBS—and how to prepare for your appointment. Learn what the experts have to say.
  • male doctor talking to female patient
    1. “It may take time to diagnose.”
    There’s no single test available to diagnose IBS. Your doctor has to rule out all other potential causes for your symptoms first. This can include everything from food allergies to celiac disease to lactose intolerance. “It can take some time and trial and error to cross other causes off the list, so try to be patient,” says Robynne Chutkan, MD, an integrative gastroenterologist.
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    2. “Track your diet.”
    “This [tracking your diet] is one of the best things you can do before a doctor appointment to help rule out any food allergies or intolerances,” says Dr. Chutkan. For at least a week before your first appointment, write down everything you eat and any digestive symptoms you have. Symptoms may include diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, abdominal pain or cramping, and passing mucus.
  • Soda shopping
    3. “Watch out for artificial sweeteners.”
    Artificial sweeteners, such as sorbitol and mannitol, in sugar-free foods and drinks can cause diarrhea and bloating. “You can even find them in some ‘light’ yogurt and liquid medications, so check all labels,” says Christine Frissora, MD. Caffeine, alcohol, fried foods, high-fat foods, dairy, beans, cabbage, chocolate, and nuts can also cause problems.
  • Group of Women Eating Out
    4. “But you may not have to give up foods you love.”
    Sometimes people hesitate to seek treatment for GI symptoms because they think they’ll have to give up their favorite foods or beverages. “I usually don’t tell patients they have to cut anything out completely,” says Dayna Early, MD. “You may just need to limit it rather than avoiding it altogether.” This provides a good balance between controlling your symptoms and your quality of life.
  • slow cooker with food in it
    5. “Use a slow cooker.”
    Cooking your foods makes them easier to digest. For example, “Instead of eating lots of raw vegetables, homemade soup is best,” Dr. Frissora says. “A slow cooker is a great investment. If you have a sensitive stomach, stewed vegetables and meats go down easier than grilled, broiled or fried.” Eating several smaller meals throughout the day—instead of three larger meals—can also be easier on your digestive system.
  • exercising-women-running-outdoors
    6. “It’s OK to exercise.”
    Many people think exercise will worsen their symptoms, but often the opposite is true. “Exercise can improve digestion, stress and sleep; encourage healthier eating habits; and improve your overall quality of life,” Dr. Early says. What’s more, exercise is also a good alternative to caffeine when you need an energy boost. Even taking a short, brisk walk can re-energize you. Discuss with your doctor what types of exercise may be best for you.
  • doctor talking to patient
    7. “Don’t be embarrassed.”
    Uncomfortable though they may be, rectal exams are an important part of the diagnosis and treatment processes. There’s no need to feel self-conscious. “For your doctor, doing a rectal exam is like a dentist looking at your teeth,” Dr. Chutkan says. Your doctor may also recommend a stool test, X-ray series of your digestive tract, or colonoscopy to help diagnose IBS.
  • woman look though window
    8. “Be honest if something else is going on.”
    Your gut is closely linked to your brain through a rich nerve supply. And it often reacts to your emotional state. If you experience anxiety, depression, or lots of stress, discuss it with your doctor. “These issues can exacerbate GI symptoms and may need to be treated first,” says Dr. Early. “Generally, IBS treatments aren’t as effective if these mental health issues persist.”
  • woman scrolling through phone
    9. “Tell your doctor if you spot blood.”
    If you have blood in your stool, it’s probably not IBS—and it’s important to tell your doctor. It could indicate another issue, such as colon cancer, colitis, or Crohn’s disease. Unexplained weight loss and low-grade fever could signal something else, too. It’s also important to know that IBS can change with time. Contact your doctor if you experience any new symptoms or if your symptoms change in severity.
  • woman writing in journal
    10. “We want to know details.”
    The more information you give your doctor about your symptoms, the easier it will be to make a diagnosis. “Telling us you’re constipated isn’t as helpful as saying, ‘I only have a bowel movement every five days, I push for an hour, and only get hard little pellets and lots of gas,’” Dr. Chutkan says. Keeping a symptom diary can help you recall the details for your doctor.
  • Man on laptop
    11. “It’s a team effort.”
    Having IBS isn’t like having the flu, where one trip to your doctor is all you need. “Treating IBS requires a partnership between patients and their doctors,” Dr. Early says. “We can’t cure IBS with medication, but we can manage your symptoms and help you get back to a normal lifestyle.” You can research doctors who treat IBS at Healthgrades.com to find the right one for you.
11 Things Your Doctor Wants You to Know About IBS

About The Author

  1. Are You a Gut Responder? Hints on Coping With an Irritable Bowel. International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. www.iffgd.org/site/manage-your-health/tips-daily-living/hints-coping-irritable-bowel

  2. IBS Diet: What to Do and What to Avoid. International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. www.aboutibs.org/site/treatment/diet/what-to-do

  3. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.  http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/ibs/#eating

  4. Managing Caffeine Use. University of California Berkeley. http://uhs.berkeley.edu/home/news/pdf/caffeine.pdf

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 17
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.