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Sensitive Stomach? Think Twice About What You Eat This Holiday Weekend

If you are one of the estimated 60 million Americans suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the food spread this Memorial Day weekend could put a damper on your holiday fun.

“While hot dogs and ice cream have become cornerstones of the American picnic plate during the warm weather months, IBS sufferers often feel the painful effects of consuming these trigger foods,” says Deborah Sokol, MD, a gastroenterologist with Lourdes Medical Associates.

IBS occurs when the large intestine (bowel) does not function properly and contracts faster or slower than normal, resulting in abdominal pain or discomfort, along with diarrhea, constipation, or both. It is estimated that between 10 to 20 percent of the population has IBS at some time, and the debilitating condition accounts for 20 to 50 percent of visits to gastroenterologists each year.

IBS often starts in teens or young adults, but it can occur at any age and is often associated with stress. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, more than 80% of IBS patients in the United States are women.
IBS is diagnosed when a person has abdominal pain or discomfort at least three times per month for three consecutive months without other disease or injury that could explain the pain. The pain or discomfort of IBS may occur with a change in stool frequency or consistency or may be relieved by a bowel movement.

Symptoms of IBS include:

  • Cramping pain in your lower abdomen
  • Bloating and gas
  • Diarrhea or constipation, or bouts of both
  • Immediate need to move your bowels when you wake up or during or after meals
  • Relief of pain after bowel movements
  • Feeling of incomplete emptying after bowel movements
  • Mucus in your stool

It is unknown exactly what causes IBS, and the intestines of people with the condition appear normal when examined. Risk factors may include a low-fiber diet, emotional stress, food allergies, use of laxatives, a bout of infectious diarrhea, or other temporary bowel inflammation.

“While we don’t have a concrete cause for why people develop IBS, we know that diet plays a major role,” explains Dr. Sokol. “Fatty foods, artificial sweeteners, chemical additives, red meat, dairy products, chocolate, alcohol and carbonated beverages may trigger or aggravate episodes in some people. Gluten contained in wheat and barley can also be a problem for some people with IBS.”

To help you enjoy your picnic or barbecue this weekend, Dr. Sokol suggests the following tips:

Know your trigger foods  If you’re not sure what foods upset your stomach, start a food diary, advises Dr. Sokol. Write down everything you eat and drink, plus any symptoms you have and when they occur. Then see if there is a pattern.

Choose water  Beer, iced tea and soda are common outdoor beverages during the summer months, but alcohol and caffeine are culprits for IBS. Carbonation can also contribute to bloating in IBS sufferers. Instead, stay hydrated with still water and add lemon for flavor and help with digestion.

Limit your fat intake  Fried and fatty foods, such as hamburgers and fried chicken slow down your digestive system and can cause cramping and abdominal pain in some IBS sufferers. Dr. Sokol suggests buying lean meat with the lowest fat percentage you can find. Grilled chicken and fish are safe options.

Don’t scream for ice cream  Dairy products can be a problem for people with IBS if they have difficulty digesting lactose, the sugar found in milk. If this is the case for you, steer clear of cheese on your burgers, ice cream and the like. Italian ice and sorbet are good alternatives.

Think big, eat small  For IBS suffers, an overstuffed stomach is more likely to result in cramping and diarrhea. The key is to eat moderately and slowly. This will avoid overeating and will give your body time to digest.

If you suffer from abdominal discomfort on a regular basis and/or your symptoms get worse after eating, make an appointment with a gastroenterologist or primary physician. Your doctor will feel your abdomen to check for signs of pain and may perform additional tests including a rectal exam, pelvic exam for women, stool sample testing, blood and urine tests, lactose intolerant test, ultrasound and x-rays to rule out other conditions.

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For media inquiries only, contact Lauren Markin at  Markinl@lourdesnet.org.

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