On this page

What causes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Man dishing up bowl of pasta
On this page

No one really know what causes IBS, but it may be triggered by stress, problems with your immune system, or a problem with how the muscles of your gut squeeze food through your bowel. The good news is that there’s a lot you can do, through diet and stress management, to control the condition and ease your symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of IBS

The symptoms of IBS usually come on for the first time between the ages of 20 and 30. They tend to come and go in bouts, often during times of stress or after eating certain foods, and they can vary from person to person.

There are three main patterns of bowel symptoms in IBS:

  • IBS with diarrhoea - when you have repeated bouts of diarrhoea
  • IBS with constipation - when you have repeated bouts of constipation
  • IBS mixed - when you have repeated bouts of diarrhoea and constipation

IBS can also cause:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Bloating
  • A change in your bowel habits
  • Excessive wind
  • An urgent need to go to the toilet
  • A feeling that you need to open your bowels, even if you've just been to the toilet
  • A feeling that you’ve not fully emptied your bowels

Want to learn more about IBS symptoms? Watch our video below.

IBS triggers

Certain foods and drinks can trigger IBS symptoms. These vary from person to person so it’s a good idea to keep a diary of which foods and drinks make your symptoms worse, then you’ll be able to avoid them. Changing your diet is a key way to control the symptoms of IBS, but there’s no ‘one size fits all’ diet for people with IBS; it depends entirely on your symptoms and how you react to different foods.

Common food and drink triggers include:

  • Alcohol
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Chocolate
  • Drinks that contain caffeine, such as tea, coffee and coke
  • Processed snacks, such as crisps and biscuits
  • Fatty foods
  • Fried foods
  • Pastry
  • Certain meats, such as pork

Another common trigger of IBS symptoms is stress, so finding ways to cope better with stressful situations, such as breathing techniques or yoga, can be very helpful.

How to manage IBS

  • When you can, cook homemade meals using fresh ingredients
  • Try to find ways to relax, like reading a book or meditating
  • Make sure to get plenty of exercise
  • Keep a diary to find out what may trigger your IBS
  • Try probiotics for a month to see if they help
  • Try not to delay or skip meals
  • Ideally don’t eat too quickly
  • Try to avoid eating fatty, spicy or processed foods. Read our food swaps guide for alternatives
  • It’s advised not to drink more than 3 cups of tea or coffee a day, and to avoid drinking alcohol or fizzy drinks in excess

Medication for IBS

Everyone will experience different symptoms of IBS, so there’s not one single diet or medicine that’s recommended for everyone. However, there are several over-the-counter options you can try that may relieve symptoms.

  • Senocalm 20 capsulesSenocalm capsules can help relieve symptoms of IBS including bloating and discomfort as well as spasms and cramps.
  • Alflorex Precision Biotics CapsulesAlflorex is a food supplement, which has been clinically studied in patients with IBS and shown to manage symptoms including abdominal pain and discomfort and bloating.
  • Buscopan IBS ReliefBuscipan IBS Relief helps ease symptoms of IBS such as abdominal cramps which cause pain and discomfort.

As everyone experiences IBS differently, not all medications will work for everyone. If you’re not sure which one is best for you come in-store and talk to one of our pharmacists. They can help to recommend IBS treatments that work for you.

IBS support

If you’re experiencing IBS, there are several places you can get help and advice. Your pharmacist can give you advice on diet and lifestyle, as well as talk you through the options for medicines that are available, depending on the symptoms you’re experiencing.

Speak to your GP

If you’re experiencing symptoms of IBS, but haven’t been diagnosed yet, see your GP. If you’ve been diagnosed with IBS and need more advice about getting your symptoms under control, your GP can refer you to a dietitian. They may also refer you for psychological therapies if you’ve been living with IBS for a long time, haven’t yet found the right treatment for you and find stress or anxiety a trigger.

Online Doctor VideoGP

The IBS network

The IBS Network is a national charity for people with IBS. It provides information and advice about living with IBS, where you can find local support groups and also an online forum where you can talk to other people living with IBS and share tips.