Tips and Tools: Constipation and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Sometimes mistaken for heartburn or indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects approximately 700,000 Canadians. Recent studies have helped clarify some of the mystery behind IBS, but doctors are still unsure of its exact causes and patterns.

Definition and Symptoms

IBS is a broad diagnosis given to people who are experiencing symptoms associated with their gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Usually the symptoms are chronic, and are not being caused by a known GI condition or disease such as Crohn's disease or colitis.

People with IBS may experience a range of symptoms including:

  • bowel pain
  • bloating
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • excessive gas
  • heartburn
  • mucus in the stools

Symptoms may change almost on a daily basis, and some foods or beverages may make symptoms worse.


Some studies suggest that the condition may develop after an infection in the GI tract. The inflammation caused by infection may disrupt the lining of the gut and interfere with the proper absorption of nutrients.

Although IBS is not caused by specific foods, certain types of foods can worsen symptoms in some people.

Other research is focusing on the social and emotional issues involved in the development of IBS. Anxiety or stress can initiate or worsen symptoms.

Types of IBS

There are three types of IBS commonly used by physicians to classify IBS: constipation, diarrhea or pain-dominant IBS.

In all cases, IBS is due to altered motility in the GI tract. The smooth muscles cells in the gut and the nerves that regulate their function are periodically poorly coordinated. As a result the gut muscles may move slower, faster or more erratic than normal. Bowel movements may be painful, irregular or more frequent than normal.


Usually IBS cannot be "cured", although dietary and lifestyle changes can help people manage their symptoms.

  1. Diet
    Many physicians suggest that people avoid 'exclusionary' diets that, for example, restrict all dairy or wheat products, unless there is proof of a true intolerance to a type of food. Trial-and-error can help you exclude or include those foods that help lessen your symptoms. Adequate intake of fibre helps some people with IBS keep bowel movements regular.
  2. Stress Management
    Because anxiety and stress worsen symptoms in some people with IBS, practicing deep breathing exercises, meditation and other relaxation techniques can help control symptoms. Exercise not only helps reduce stress but aids motility in the gut. Certain abdominal stretches can help promote movement in the intestine.
  3. Medications
    Certain medications can help alleviate the symptoms of IBS. Depending on the type of IBS, treatment may include medications for constipation or diarrhea, or smooth muscle relaxants that affect the GI tract.

Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing the symptoms of IBS.

Learn more about Gastrointestinal