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Hacks for People Living with IBS

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Life with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is often frustrating and overly complicated. What you can and can’t eat seems like it changes hourly. People don’t understand why you can’t “just hold it.” In my experience, soothing intestinal pain is often on par with caring for a screaming infant.

These hacks are for the days when you think you may never leave the bathroom or feel normal again. They’re also helpful for dodging triggers and generally saving time. Make daily life with IBS easier with these helpful hacks.

1. Always pack snacks

ishonest No.111 - Purge Impurities

No.111 - Purge Impurities

Food is by far my biggest obstacle. I never know if I will be able to find something I can eat while I’m out. If I’m going to be out for more than a couple of hours, I bring a snack with me. This keeps me from having to choose between eating something that may upset my stomach and unleashing my hanger on the world.

2. Pay for the app already

I got pretty tired of always having to Google foods on my phone in the grocery store or at restaurants. A dedicated low FODMAP smartphone app is well worth the money. This one from Monash University makes it easy to look up whether you can have butternut squash (yes, 1/4 cup) and find substitutes easily.

3. Give yourself breaks between meetings

Back-to-back meetings can lead to anxiety about the next time you can run off to the bathroom, and leaving in the middle of meetings can be tricky or impossible. As much as you can, try to schedule at least 5–15 minutes between meetings so you can go to the bathroom, refill your water bottle, or do whatever else you need to do without stress.

4. Wear layers

As someone who is almost always cold, I never leave the house without at least one extra layer. But layers are essential for more than just warmth. Loose layers or a long scarf can cover bloating and help you feel more comfortable and confident.

5. Be honest with your friends (and a co-worker or two)

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My closest friends know that I have IBS and understand the impact it has on my daily life. As much as I hate talking about it or bringing it up, life is easier when the people I spend the most time with understand why I might have to skip out on plans or why I can’t eat their grandma’s famous dish. You don’t have to go into the grisly details, but letting your friends know the basics helps to avoid misunderstandings and reduces the impact of IBS on your social life. It can also help clear things up at work. Doing so makes it easier to rush off to the bathroom in the middle of a meeting or take a sick day when necessary.

6. Heat packs for intestinal pain

A microwavable heat pack is my favorite purchase of the past few years. I bought it for my perpetually cold feet, but discovered it was amazing at soothing intestinal pain (and menstrual cramps). A hot water bottle or electric heat pack will also do. You can even fill a sock with dry rice in a pinch.

7. Embrace stretchy or loose-fitting pants

Yoga pants, joggers, and leggings are an IBS dream. Tight pants can press into already irritated intestines and make you spend the whole day longing to take them off. Stretchy or loose-fitting pants make a huge difference when you’re bloated or suffering from intestinal pain. They can help you stay comfortable and may help to reduce the pain.

8. Go digital with your symptom tracker

Get rid of the notebook sitting in your bathroom and stop worrying that your friends or roommates will read about the consistency of your last bowel movement. Whether you keep a document in the cloud or use an app like Symple or Bowelle, digital trackers make it easy to keep all of your symptoms, food diary, and notes in one place.

9. Sip on a cup of tea

ishonest No.361 - Acne Scars

No.361 - Acne Scars

I’m a firm believer in the power of tea. Just brewing and holding the cup of tea alone can soothe me. Sipping on a hot cup of tea can help you relax and reduce stress, a known IBS trigger. Many varieties can also help with IBS symptoms. Ginger and mint tea can calm an upset stomach and improve digestion, and many other varieties help ease constipation. (If you’re experiencing diarrhea, skip any tea with caffeine, as it can make matters worse.) Plus, it feels good to indulge in a little self-care when you’re not feeling well.

10. Bring your own hot sauce

Let’s face it, low-FODMAP foods can be bland and dreadfully boring, especially when eating out. Pack your own hot sauce and quickly become the hero of the table. Look for hot sauce made without onion or garlic like this one.

11. Invite friends over instead of going out

If you don’t want to talk about what you can and can’t eat, make everything yourself or order your favorite foods from a restaurant you know you can eat at. Cleaning the bathroom is well worth skipping the stress of eating out!

12. Keep electrolyte tablets in your desk

I know I’m not the only one who is sick of hearing about how important it is to stay hydrated, but these electrolyte tablets are worth talking about. They are great for bouts of diarrhea or making water more attractive after a sweaty workout. Just be careful to avoid any that have artificial sweeteners, sorbitol, or any other sugars that end in -tol. They may irritate your intestines. These electrolyte tablets from Nuun are easy to slip into your bag or keep in your desk. The hydration mix from Skratch Labs is a good Gatorade substitute if you need some carbohydrates too.

13. Stock up on garlic olive oil

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Home cooks rejoice! If you’re mourning the loss of garlic and onions, it’s time to get a bottle of garlic olive oil. The indigestible sugars in garlic that can aggravate IBS are water-soluble. This means that when they’re infused in oil without any water, none of the sugars end up in the final well-strained oil. You can get the garlic flavor (and then some!) with a small amount of garlic olive oil without any of the pain or discomfort.

Bottom line

Living with IBS can mean experiencing awkward and uncomfortable situations on a daily basis. The above hacks can help you manage your symptoms so you can stay feeling your best. Plus, trust me about the hot sauce and garlic olive oil — they are both game changers.

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