The top 10 IBS myths debunked

While the internet is a wonderful, enchanting place, full of resources, community, humour and comfort, it’s also full of a lot of nonsense. Nonsense that varies from the obvious and the ridiculous to the nonsense that sounds so believable you think it might just be true. It can be forgiven then, that understanding fact from fiction has become increasingly difficult, especially when it comes to our health.

Girl sitting on bed with tea

One complicated condition surrounded by such myths is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS affects the digestive system, causing symptoms such as stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation.

With a reported spike in people contacting IBS helplines since lockdown, it seems a growing number of people are looking for help too. 

IBS is estimated at 17% of the UK population. That means 17 people out of every 100 have IBS.

Having been diagnosed with IBS as a teenager, I know how hard it can be to find reliable and professional information. So I asked health coach and nutritional therapist Marie Jarvis, to set the record straight on some of the top myths once and for all.

Top 10 IBS myths

1. We continue to live increasingly busy lifestyles and a lot of us are more stressed than we realise. Is IBS caused by stress? 

IBS has many roots. Stress may play a major part in it for some people but not everyone. Think of the flight or fright scenario. When we encounter a majorly stressful situation, many of our bodily functions shut down, including the digestive system. Constant underlying stress leads to poor digestive function, resulting in symptoms like indigestion, bloating, flatulence and/or diarrhoea/constipation.

2. Symptoms can look so different for each of us, but often a few simple changes are lauded as a solution for everyone. Is it a one-size-fits-all approach to manage IBS? 

Absolutely not. Some of my clients have removed foods like dairy and/or gluten with major improvements, whereas others have had to revamp their whole diet and/or remove high FODMAP foods.

3. It’s easy to feel quite isolated when you have IBS and to think that not that many people suffer from it. Is IBS uncommon? 

IBS is estimated at 17% of the UK population. That means 17 people out of every 100 have IBS. 

4. Cutting out whole food groups or going on a really restrictive diet are often suggested as ways to help control IBS. Should people try these methods? And is diet the only way to treat IBS?

Never go on a restrictive diet without the support of a healthcare professional.  Even a low FODMAP diet should be undertaken with a specialised healthcare professional. There are many things that you can do to help manage the condition, such as dietary changes, or breathing and yoga exercises.

A nutritional therapist may be able to help with specific lifestyle and dietary changes to reduce IBS symptoms.

Lady with a yoga mat

5. There’s a lot of talk around too much salt in your diet causing water retention and bloating. Can too much salt cause IBS symptoms?

It is unlikely that too much salt in your diet will cause IBS. However, it may be a contributing factor to the symptoms. If you find it difficult to reduce salt in your diet, increasing zinc-rich foods, such as seafood, nuts, seeds and red meat may help.

6. Buckwheat often confuses people by having ‘wheat’ in its name. Should buckwheat be avoided if you have IBS? 

Buckwheat is actually a fruit seed grain rather than wheat. Monash University, who devised the FODMAP diet, classes buckwheat as low FODMAP and it can therefore be eaten in small quantities. It is also free from wheat and gluten.

7. It’s often only women talking and being talked about in the IBS space. Is it only women that suffer from IBS?

IBS is more common in women – around 23% of the population as opposed to 11% in men.

8. Fasting has grown in popularity in recent years. Can fasting help with managing IBS? Is there a difference when it comes to intermittent fasting and long-term fasting?

I would not advise fasting unless under the guidance of a healthcare professional. Fasting may help you to lose weight quickly, but it may not be safe for people with a medical condition. 

You might, however, wish to consider time-restricted eating. This requires eating within a specific time period each day, for example from 10 am-8 pm. The digestive system has a mechanism called migrating motor complex (MMC) which acts like a vacuum cleaner. When digestion is at rest it comes along and removes undigested food and debris that would otherwise cause havoc. 

Resting the digestive system 12-14 hours overnight may help to improve its function. But, as with any big changes you would like to make to your diet or eating habits, consult a healthcare professional before doing so.

Man eating noodles at a restaurant

9. The phrase ‘it’s all in your head’ is said to those suffering from IBS more than they would like to count. Is IBS a purely psychological disorder?

IBS is not a purely psychological disorder. It is generally poor functioning of the digestive system. This may have many root causes from low stomach acid, poor secretion of digestive enzymes, imbalance in gut bacteria and/or slow motility, amongst other things. 

10. Being diagnosed with IBS can feel like a life sentence, with people wondering whether they will be dealing with symptoms for the rest of their life. Is IBS a life-long illness? 

I myself, had IBS-like symptoms for several years. I had an urgency to go, bloating, flatulence and a variation between diarrhoea and constipation. Today, after doing a stool test and readdressing imbalances in my gut I am pretty much free from symptoms. 

I have worked with many people over the past few years who feel that their IBS is now resolved and others who can manage their symptoms effectively. Working with a qualified nutritional therapist has been a game-changer for many.

If you’re looking for support with your IBS and digestive issues, use the search tool to find a qualified practitioner in your area.

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Written by Emma Hatcher
Emma Hatcher is a Leiths-trained cook, writer and author of The FODMAP Friendly Kitchen.
Written by Emma Hatcher
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