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Managing IBS at University

Amy Jackson

IBS. It’s not a condition that we feel we can easily talk about. Yet 10-20% of people in the UK suffer from it. Let’s face it, us British folk can often get quite squeamish when it comes to talking about poo. Pardon the pun, but that’s a load of crap. With such a significant amount of us living with IBS, it’s a condition that we should reduce the stigma around, and then it might not be considered an ‘embarrassing illness’ quite so much. With the recent focus around freshers week, it got me thinking about IBS and how it affects young people. While it can occur at any age, it’s been shown to occur most often in young adults in their twenties – myself included. However, I suffered with the condition for a number of years before I actually got a diagnosis – as I’m sure many others have. Despite how common IBS is, there doesn’t seem to be much information out their dedicated to younger people, students especially. Going to university can be a stressful time as it is, without the fear of a chronic health condition holding you back. So, in the hope that I can extend some help to anyone out there suffering, I’ve put together my tips on how to manage IBS at university. And yes, I will occasionally be talking about poo.

While it’s probably obvious, I will of course point out that I am not a doctor or any other type of medical professional. The advice in this post is based on my own experience with IBS and does not mean you should take it instead of actual medical advice. If you’re concerned you may be suffering with IBS or experiencing symptoms that are worrying you, speak to your GP.

What Is IBS?

IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It’s a common condition that affects the digestive system and the most common symptoms include:

  • Bloating
  • Stomach cramps
  • Constipation/diarrhoea
  • Flatulence
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea

Symptoms can come and go and there may be days when they’re worse than others. They can often be triggered by factors such as stress, certain foods, alcohol, and caffeine. There are however, other times when symptoms can occur for no reason. (NHS, 2019).

Managing IBS at University

If you’re a long time sufferer of IBS, you’ll know that it’s quite a stressful condition to live with. Whether it’s in the form of trying to come up with an excuse for why you keep disappearing into the toilet or having to cancel yet more plans because your stomach’s acting up, it doesn’t make life easy. Combine that with university, where you have a new situation, new people and new toilets (every IBS sufferer’s worst enemy), you’ve got quite the party. But fear not, these are my top tips I’ve learned over the years when it comes to living with IBS.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

1: Know Your Triggers

As I’ve already mentioned, there are a number of triggers when it comes to IBS, however, we’re all different. Triggers for one person might be totally different to another, so it’s a good idea to keep a record of any ‘flare ups’ when you have them so that you can pick up any patterns. Some find keeping a food diary can also be useful to identify anything that triggers your symptoms, such as spicy or fatty foods. Knowing your triggers can make it easier to prepare for a big lifestyle event, in that you can take measures to prevent your stomach from acting up. For example, my main trigger is anxiety. If have a particularly stressful event coming up, I make sure that I’ve got plenty of ways to manage my nerves which helps to calm my symptoms.

2: Register with a GP

This can be an easy one to forget, especially if you’re living off campus. However, registering with a GP means you’re covered in the medical department as a whole, not just if you suffer with IBS. It should still be a priority regardless of whether or not you have a long-term medical condition, so look into where your nearest surgery is once you’ve moved in. A lot of students will stay registered with their practice at home, but being registered with a nearby surgery will ensure that you have peace of mind should you symptoms change. 

3: Know What’s Normal for You

Let’s talk poo for a minute. A lot of us know what’s ‘normal’ for us when it comes to our toilet habits, and this can especially be the case with IBS. For me, I know my ‘usual’ symptoms if I’m having a flare up, and that’s mainly been down to having it for so long. It means that it’s easier to distinguish whether it’s just your usual flare up caused by anxiety or whatever, and you can easily spot anything different. If you notice any changes in your bowel habits, it’s always worth noting them down and if they keep happening, pay your GP a visit.

4: Poo When You Need To

This may seem like an obvious one, but if you’re a nervous poo-er, it’s easier said than done. I spent many a year making myself feel ill because I couldn’t use any other toilet than the one in my flat. It genuinely took me five years before I could poo at work. If this is you, I feel ya. But at the end of the day, holding it in will just make you feel worse. Trust me. Break the seal early. If you live in a shared house, this may be a bit more difficult, but I’ll tell you now – we all poo. Every single other person in your house will poo. If you’re worried about smells etc, invest in some decent air freshener and just get it over with. Let’s be realistic too – living in a shared house, there will be a LOT of oversharing when it comes to the conversations. Poo probably will come up at some point. I’ve always said it., the mark of a good friendship is being able to talk about poo.

5: Manage Stress & Anxiety

It’s common knowledge that anxiety and IBS go hand in hand. Fellow IBS sufferers will tell you that it often occurs in a vicious cycle – the IBS leads to anxiety, which causes the IBS to worsen, which makes the anxiety worse, and so on. Starting university is a stressful time, so feeling anxious is perfectly normal, but if you’re worried about it triggering your IBS, look into some anxiety management techniques to help keep you calm. Whether you opt for exercise, meditation, or just some basic self care, finding healthy ways to manage your stress can work wonders at preventing those pesky flare ups.

6: Maintain a Healthy Diet

I probably don’t have to tell you that a typical ‘student diet’ of takeaways, snacks and packet noodles isn’t the best thing to have when you suffer from IBS. Eating well is one way to help reduce symptoms of IBS, however the type of diet you stick to can depend on the symptoms you suffer with. Generally, the best things to do are to ensure you don’t eat too many fatty, processed or spicy foods, avoid eating meals too quickly, and to drink plenty of water. It’s also a good idea to limit your caffeine and alcohol intake too. I know, not really what you want to hear during your first year, but your stomach will thank you for it! 

Find out more about IBS at https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs/. You can also find information and support on managing the condition at https://www.theibsnetwork.org/.

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