How To Get Through The Holiday Season When You Suffer From IBS

Living with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, can be exhausting, painful, and just plain frustrating. Add in the stress and chaos of the holiday season, and you could have a recipe for disaster. But it doesn't have to be that way. Luckily, some tips on managing the holiday season when you have IBS should help.

IBS affects between 10% and 15% of the U.S. population, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. During IBS, the bowels work differently than healthy bowels with it typically being caused by the nerves and muscles, which rule how the bowels feel and move (via Mayo Clinic). This can cause bloating, abdominal pain, cramping, changes to the appearance of the stool, how often you're using the bathroom, and the feeling that your bowel movement is not complete. Keep in mind, IBS is more likely to occur in women under 50 years old, who have a family history of it and mental health issues.

While experts don't exactly know why IBS occurs, they think it could be caused by issues with the nervous system, an infection or bacterial overgrowth, childhood trauma, irregular muscle contractions in the intestinal tract, and changes in bacteria or viruses in the gut. Unfortunately, it can be exacerbated by certain foods and increased stress.

Managing IBS throughout the holidays

On top of regular holiday demands, living with IBS means you also have to think about the possibilities of traveling long distances, staying with family, eating foods that might not agree with you, and trying to manage symptoms on the go (via Northwestern Now news release). The added stress can intensify IBS symptoms, which are already influenced by stress. It could cause more pain, lead the gut to speed up or slow down, and change the microbiome of the gut, according to Dr. Tiffany Taft, a research associate professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a clinical psychologist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago.

Before the holidays arrive, Dr. Taft recommends practicing relaxation. To do so, try using a meditation app, visualizing a relaxing place, listening to your favorite music, or doing some stretching. She suggests keeping track of unhelpful and negative thoughts, which can make stress worse. Additionally, pay attention to thoughts about worst-case scenarios. Instead of dwelling on them, make a game plan for how you'll deal with them. Remind yourself of how much you've already handled and trust that you can manage anything that IBS throws your way. It's also useful to pay attention to the physical signs of stress, like clenching your jaw or tightening your shoulders. When you notice these sensations, take a few minutes to practice your relaxation techniques and calm your body (and bowels) down.