Article: ‘Cramping My Style’ (IBS And Sex)

You’ve been excited all day because, in your mind, you have a clear plan: Get home, put on that brand new sexy underwear that makes you feel like a rockstar, and wait for your partner to return so that you can jump them.

Part one and two of the plan go off without a hitch but then, suddenly, as you’re standing in the hallway practicing your ‘welcome home’ pose you feel your insides do a flip. You bowel begins to churn, turn, and grumble, and you realize that the only date you’re having tonight is with the toilet.

Welcome to the shitty world of irritable bowel syndrome.

What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (or IBS) for short, is kind of like a catch-all term that medical professionals use for digestive issues that they can’t pin down to anything else.

Okay, that’s a bit of a cynical definition, although it does seem accurate based on my life experiences.

To be more objective, IBS is a long-term condition which impacts the digestive system. Symptoms can vary but typically consist of painful cramping, bloating, and either diarrhea or constipation.

The severity of irritable bowel syndrome can vary wildly from person to person and even moment to moment. As an IBS sufferer there have been times where I’ve just felt a slight ‘wobbly tummy’ and decided to take it easy and there have been others where I literally couldn’t take a single step forward while out and about due to the sudden onset of extreme abdominal pain.

And, trust, me, standing in place doubled over in pain in public knowing that, somehow, you’ve got to make it home, is never a fun experience.

IBS is thought to affect about 1 in 5 people at some point in their life and usually develops at 20 to 30 years of age. It’s a lifelong condition and women have twice the chance of suffering from it compared to men. Yay for women *she says with the most extreme of sarcasm*

What Causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

The joy of IBS is that, for the most part, it’s still a mystery. Think it it like the bemused and defeated shoulder shrug of the digestive illness world.

The current consensus is that IBS might be caused from a natural increased sensitivity of the gut and difficulties in processing certain food, but the ‘problem foods’ that cause IBS can also be very person-specific, which complicates things even further.

To go in to more depth, there’s currently a theory that people either become more sensitive to any pain or discomfort that the gut feels, or that food passes through the gut too slowly or too swiftly.

Psychological factors may have a part of play too, and stress and anxiety are very common ‘triggers’ for an bout of IBS to hit hard. When I was at my worst with IBS I found that whenever I was nervous my IBS would be a lot worst, which is just like adding insult to injury.

Common Treatments For IBS (Short Term)

Because IBS is long-term, mostly still a mystery, and can vary so much, there’s no definitive cure to IBS, so most of the immediate IBS treatments out there are about pain and symptom management. And, to be honest, given how diverse the ways IBS can manifest are, this treatment method can, at the very least, provide a more personal approach to treatment, so there’s that.

Examples of different symptom-based treatments might be:

Cramping may be reduced with over the counter pain killers or antispasmotics. Hot water bottles or heat pads may also be recommended.

Constipation may be reduced with laxatives.

Diarrhea may be reduced with antimotility medicine.

In some cases, low doses of antidepressant have also been shown to help with stomach pain.

Common Treatments For IBS (Long Term)

Thankfully, there are also some big lifestyle changes that can be made to help improve IBS.

The most popular change is one to diet. A lot of people have found that it helps to identify ‘trigger’ foods which might increase their chances of having a bout of IBS. For me I know that stews are a no-go, as are really spicy foods, and knowing this means I can avoid pain rather than just weather through the symptoms with no clear idea as to why they’re happening.

Balancing out the different types of fiber that you consume is also thought to have a positive effect on IBS, as does eating regularly, drinking water frequently, avoiding too many trigger foods, and limiting coffee and tea intake.

A lot of people have also reported great benefits on the low FODMAP lifestyle plan, which involves limiting food which is high in fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols (FODMAPs). This lifestyle plan can be found here.

Speaking for myself here, I know that a low FODMAP diet just wouldn’t work for me, nor does it seem optimal for my needs. Veganism on a low FODMAP diet isn’t impossible, but it does require more planning. Plus, if I’m honest, my IBS had improved significantly since I reduced my weight and moved on to a wholefood plant-based vegan diet, which just goes to show that there are always going to be different approaches and theories when it comes to IBS.

Exercise and weight management are also thought to be effective when it comes to countering IBS, as are things such as cutting out alcohol, smoking, and other generally unhealthy lifestyle practices.

Let’s face it – we all know the drill for increased health, it’s just about how we balance that with our daily life and own preferences.

But What About Sex?

There’s a reason that I don’t use anal toys on myself or allow anal penetration and that reason is IBS.

Whether or not I’m having a bout of discomfort, the sensation of anal play just reminds me too much of my many years struggling with the pain of IBS, and I am not about that life.

I do find that, for me, anal play can also be a trigger for an IBS episode, which is just something i’ve come to accept.

And that’s the sad reality for many people with IBS.

A lot of people have resigned themselves to sexual difficulties when it comes to IBS because of the very nature of IBS.

The symptoms of IBS can be hugely disruptive when it comes to daily living, and that interruption can permeate one’s sex life too.

It’s very difficult to feel sexy if you’re bloated, cramping, or constipated, and, equally, having to suddenly rush to the loo (or dripping a toxic gas cloud by accident mid-sex) can be a real mood killer for one, or all people involved in the sex act.

Fear and worry are also huge problems. If you have IBS you may be scared of what it will mean for you while having sex, which may then cause stress, which then triggers your IBS, in a pretty unfair cycle of ‘fuck you’ to your chance of fucking.

For some, such as myself, certain sexual acts may also be a trigger for IBS, which may also create a negative psychological association, making things worst.

Yes, for the IBS sufferer having a ‘normal’ (or, at the very least, spontaneous) sex life may seem impossible.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Counteracting IBS For Better Sex

IBS is a personal battle, which sucks in terms of a quick and easy fix, but does allow for sufferers to really get to know their body and how best to approach and mange their condition. And IBS management is the best way forward when it comes to IBS and sex.

Before you even worry about if you can have sex or not stop.

You’re going to have sex.

That’s something you want and something you’ve committed to.

It’s just a case of facilitating this.

This is the mindset you need to have moving forward, because it will get you in the right frame of mind for victory.

You’re not fighting a battle where you might lose your sexual independence because of IBS. There is no losing. Just success or moments where you learn and adjust.

From there it’s a case of finding out what works for you.

A combination of diet management, trigger identification, and medication will most likely allow you the most comprehensive way to move forward with your physical symptoms and, as you go forward, you will gradually learn to balance the scales to find the right sexual sweet spot for you.

But, during the process, partner communication, masturbation, and the release of any expectations are crucial for making sure that you have the mental fortitude and support network in place for long-term success.

In some cases, there may be a desire to either go whole-hog and plan every single sex day or to just try and jump your partner whenever there’s a rare IBS-free moment and live in that manner. What do I think of these methods?

Well, because IBS is, by its very nature, unpredictable, I think it pays to take a fluid approach between the two of these. Yes – some days you’ll want to plan sex, and in the early stages of your sex & IBS strategy planning and identifying what works will be useful – but there’s nothing wrong with wanting to enjoy the moment when you’re feeling good.

Just make sure that, in both scenarios, the only reason for sex doesn’t become because you’re not in pain with IBS. Sex should be mutually enjoyable. If you find that the only thing you’re thinking pre-sex is ‘I’m not in pain, best get it in now’ then it might be worth asking yourself what sexual pleasure and satisfaction means to you as an individual.

Taking the time to masturbate in these free moments might be a better choice sometimes, allowing you to rediscover how good things can feel when you are in full control of your body. You never know – you may even learn something new about yourself.

Although it’s been said already, I really can’t stress the importance of communication either. If you have a partner/s then let them know how IBS feels, what helps it, what hinders it, and share how it impacts you both/all in the relationship. Doing this will not only strengthen your bond but it will also decrease sex and worry prior to any sex, which will then decrease the chance of an IBS flare-up.

The Takeaway

IBS is a comprehensive digestive ‘Fuck you’ but, thankfully, there are comprehensive ways to counter it and IBS is manageable.

What’s more, the personal, hands-on approach to IBS management means that, once you find systems that work from you, there is a sense of personal achievement at overcoming a bodily hurdle.

IBS isn’t ideal but it can have positive results in terms of self-esteem, knowledge acquisition, and even sex. It’s all about finding the right strategy for you.

  • Innocent Loverboy

    Fellow IBS sufferer here (although mine appears to be more severe) and I both agree and sympathise with everything you’ve said there.

    Fortunately, my IBS has yet to severely impede my sex life, but it does have some impact on my work, with me sometimes having to call in sick because my stomach is committing seppuku from the inside out, or missing three days because I’m in hospital being tested for Crohn’s disease.

    I hear you regarding anal play, though. It’s been offered in the past (after I performed analingus with some very positive effects on a girlfriend she asked me if I’d like her to reciprocate), but I’ve always said no. I don’t trust my gastrointestinal tract, but after years of incredible abdominal pain at very inopportune moments, I’ve had to accept it as a terrible part of life.

    It’s nice to know I’m not alone.