How to cope with IBS at university

It’s painful, embarrassing and unpredictable


You've been working on that project for weeks and it’s finally time to submit it. Suddenly, your gut is hit with sharp pain. You run to the toilet, hand on your belly, the pain is just unbearable. First, the toilet door doesn’t close, which forces you to hold it with your free hand. Then, after 10 minutes of intense pain, you reach out and… there's no loo roll. Luckily, you always carry tissues. You're back at your table, ready to submit, eager to have this endless project done with. You look at the clock, it’s 12:05 – and you’ve missed your deadline.

As exaggerated as this sounds, this is how challenging living with IBS can be. It's often painful, embarrassing and unpredictable and it affects many of us. According to Guts UK, ‘IBS is just about the most common disorder of the digestive system and up to one third of the population experience symptoms from time to time.’

That’s why we've decided to compile a list of factors that will help you go through it much more easily, so you don’t have to miss out on the important moments in your life.

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1. No more cheesy chips after Mosh

I know it sounds like a nightmare, having to see your friends eat a Big Mac after a night out and all you're left with is carrot bags and unseasoned fries. But there are times where your health is way more important than a slice of pizza. One of the most crucial steps in this journey is following a customised and balanced diet as well as eating healthy and regularly. As students, this can be quite tricky to achieve. We're on a budget, and most of the time too tired or busy to cook a proper meal.

My advice is to visit a dietitian – they can give you advice on what to eat and aid you in identifying any foods that can trigger you. This may be an exclusion diet, such as the Low Fodmap diet, where you would remove a number of common trigger foods from your meals. If your symptoms improve, you can then reintroduce these items to your list of tolerable foods.

Personally, trying out a new diet has improved my mood as well as my physical ability and symptoms. I've also found out that there are plenty of options out there, such as Domino’s gluten-free pizza or Mc Donald’s burgers without the buns. So you can still go on a night out and come home with a full stomach. If you are curious to know how it works, there are plenty of online articles and recipes you can explore.

Tip: Do extensive research before you start. Changing your diet is not easy and requires organisation and constant management, for example, keeping a food diary.

2. Mid-lecture bathroom breaks

If you suffer from IBS you probably know how embarrassing it is leaving a lecture to go to the toilet. Everyone’s eyes are on you as you run down the stairs of the lecture hall trying to avoid the disaster waiting to happen.

If you are following a good diet, then these sudden bathroom breaks are most likely caused by stress. We all know being a student can be extremely stressful. Moving to a new area, making new friends, keeping up with deadlines, living on your own. These are all factors that can bring a lot of anxiety to university students. So it’s key to learn how to cope with stress. This is easier said than done but, unfortunately, if you suffer from IBS, it’s fundamental. There are plenty of ways you can reduce it.

First of all: exercising. It's one of the most important things you can do to combat stress and will be extra beneficial if it’s done regularly. Try to find an activity that will bring you joy such as running, dancing, yoga, etc. DMU has an incredible daily programme of free recreational sports for students called DMUactive. Their sessions are free and run throughout the academic year by 26 student activators and 3 coaches.

Another good way to reduce stress is through meditation. Meditation will help you eliminate negative thoughts, worries and other factors that create anxiety. It will improve your emotional well-being as well as your sleep patterns and your self-awareness. DMU also offer regular 30-minute Mindfulness sessions in the Breathing Space. This is a perfect place to slow down, relax and be in the moment. Other treatments, such as hypnotherapy and relaxation therapy, have also shown to be effective in relieving stress and IBS symptoms.

Tip: Find what works for you, what calms you down. Say goodbye to mid-lecture bathroom breaks. If your stress and anxiety don’t seem easily manageable contact your GP for advice as they may be able to provide counselling.

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3. Find helpful medication

If none of the above seems to be helping, don’t give up. I know it seems like the end of the world, but it isn’t. With time you will learn how to manage your diet and hopefully, you will find ways to decrease the stress that comes with being a university student.

If none of this is helpful, book an appointment with your GP and they will advise you on what to take. They will most likely prescribe you pills to reduce bowel spasms and gut pain. Hopefully, these will make a significant change in your well-being and reduce your trips to uni’s public toilets.

Unfortunately, as there is no known cause, there isn’t any specific prescription that will completely cure your symptoms, but it might improve them. It’s all a matter of trial and error. Luckily, it seems as medicine progresses, new medications and treatments are being developed which may help IBS patients in the future, including us students.

Tip: Talk to your GP or pharmacist. They will know what treatments will benefit you, depending on which symptoms you suffer from.
Overall, IBS affects people differently so we wanted to pass on our advice and tips that will hopefully help you cope with it.

If you need more information about IBS, its symptoms and treatments click here.