Gut reaction

Irritable bowel syndrome can really put a crimp in your lifestyle, but there are ways to stay on top of it and even lessen your symptoms without medication.

When Eleanor Smythe, 65, gets invited to a party, she’s never quite sure she’ll make it. If she happens to be having a bad day, she’ll be in too much pain – not to mention close proximity to the toilet – to slip on her strappy sandals and head out the door. But the worst of it is, she’ll suffer in silence. “You can say to somebody, ‘I’ve got arthritis,’ and you can share experiences,” says Smythe (not her real name), who lives in Vancouver. “I don’t know anybody that I can talk to about this.”

Smythe has irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a functional disorder that can cause abdominal cramping, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. Twenty per cent of Canadians are coping with these symptoms. Many of them are over 50. And according to a 2007 article in Geriatrics & Aging, the numbers of older adults with IBS will only increase as this segment of our population steadily grows.

When you’re aging, you may feel as though IBS is just another in a string of bodily failures. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to cope. “The good news is that there’s a huge amount you can do to learn to live with your irritable bowel and keep it happy,” says Halifax psychologist Michael Vallis, co-author of IBS Relief: A Complete Approach to Managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome (Wiley, 2006).

So what can you do to settle your symptoms? There’s certainly no one-size-fits-all cure, says Gail Attara, executive director of the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research. “It’s a game of trying whatever works for you.” But here are five fixes that might make a difference.

Fix What You Eat

For some people with IBS, foods that are particularly spicy, gassy or rich in fat can lead to problems. But these folks may be blaming their symptoms on food allergies rather than IBS. “Sometimes, people eat cheese and think they’re lactose-intolerant. But often, it’s the fat that’s triggering their response,” says gastroenterologist Dr. Geoffrey Turnbull, one of Vallis’s co-authors on the book. But take care when eliminating trouble foods: substitute low-fat cheese or skim milk for your brie, for example, to make sure you’re still getting the calcium and other nutrients you need.

Fix What You Drink

Caffeine is a common trigger. But for people with undiagnosed IBS, the coffee connection often goes unnoticed if they’ve had a thrice-daily habit for decades. “They don’t recognize what it’s doing to their bowel,” says Turnbull. “They may have to stop the caffeine for a week or so before they can appreciate how much better they feel.” Make sure you’re also drinking plenty of water, Attara adds.

Fix Your Activity Level

The truth is older adults are often less active. “That could be the reason why your bowels aren’t moving,” Attara notes. A daily walk or aqua fitness class may work magic on your insides. The bonus: physical activity also helps your body relax, says Vallis.