Weighing IBS Treatment Options: Lifestyle or Medication?

We recently conducted the 2022 Irritable Bowel Syndrome In America Survey. The survey included 64 questions, and many of the responses shed light on how the community feels about different treatment approaches.

Lifestyle changes

A popular approach to managing IBS is making lifestyle changes. Among survey respondents, 46 percent strongly agreed that they would rather change their lifestyle than take a prescription medicine.

Lifestyle changes for IBS often relate to diet and exercise. Most respondents said they used self-discipline to manage IBS symptoms. The survey showed:

  • 66 percent limit or avoid certain foods
  • 61 percent eat smaller meals
  • 56 percent increase hydration
  • 35 percent use a heating pad
  • 24 percent engage in exercise or yoga

Diet changes

Lifestyle changes for IBS often begin with adjusting the diet. There are many ways to change eating habits. Dietary changes that people with IBS find helpful include:1

  • Eating regularly and not skipping meals
  • Cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients
  • Limiting alcohol and carbonated drinks
  • Increasing water intake
  • Monitoring fiber (limit vs. increase, depending on the type of IBS)
  • Using a food journal to discover food triggers

Exercise

Many respondents reported making regular exercise part of their healthcare routine. Getting regular exercise helps with bowel movement regulation and pain management. About three-quarters of survey respondents exercise or engage in physical activity at least once a week.2

Regarding how often people exercise, the survey showed:

  • 28 percent exercise 1 to 2 times per week
  • 28 percent exercise 3 to 4 times per week
  • 20 percent exercise 5 to 7 times per week
  • 23 percent do not exercise

Types of exercise

The most common physical activity reported in the survey was walking. Among respondents who had exercised in the past 6 months, three-quarters walked for physical activity. For people with IBS, low-impact exercises often are best.2

A few activities can be problematic for those with IBS. Rapid bouncing (ball sports) and intense movements (running, CrossFit) may irritate the gut. Most survey respondents who exercise engage in low-impact activities. Besides walking, other popular responses included:2

  • Yard work (36 percent)
  • Lifting weights (18 percent)
  • Yoga (16 percent)
  • Swimming (14 percent)

Over-the-counter treatments

Another common lifestyle change is using over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. These treatments do not require a prescription. Many OTC drugs address the symptoms of IBS. They can regulate the consistency of bowel movements or help with pain and bloating symptoms.3

The survey showed that many people choose OTC drugs for IBS management:

  • 55 percent use antidiarrheals
  • 53 percent use antacids
  • 53 percent use probiotics or prebiotics
  • 49 percent use OTC nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • 47 percent use anti-gas or digestive-aid drugs
  • 41 percent use multivitamins
  • 35 percent use fiber supplements
  • 33 percent use dietary supplements
  • 26 percent use laxatives

Prescription drugs

There are several prescription drugs for IBS. However, this was not a popular treatment approach among survey respondents. Only 10 percent use a prescription drug to manage their IBS. For over half of the respondents not using a prescription, their doctor never recommended it. For around one-third of respondents, the possible side effects are too concerning.

The survey revealed a need for more awareness of prescription drug options for IBS treatment. Only one-third of people living with the condition actively look for information about new IBS medications.

The 2022 Irritable Bowel Syndrome In America Survey was conducted online from May through July 2022. The survey was completed by 1,478 people.

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