Adopting three healthy behaviours can lower the risk of developing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) by as much as 42%, new research has shown.

Experts looked at the effect of five lifestyle factors – not smoking, quality sleep, enough exercise, healthy diet and lower alcohol consumption – on the risk of developing IBS.

It is thought that one in 10 people are affected by IBS across the world. The condition causes stomach cramping, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation.

Symptoms can be sporadic but can be experienced for days or months at a time.

Experts are still unsure about what exactly causes IBS but some research has indicated that family history of IBS, stress and oversensitivity of nerves in the gut could all play a part.

Another key finding from the Chinese study was that the three behaviours that had the biggest individual effect on reducing IBS risk were not smoking, vigorous exercise and getting at least seven hours of sleep a night.

Lifestyle factors have previously been identified as raising the risk of IBS, which prompted researchers to evaluate the effects of combining several of these healthy behaviours.

The study authors said: “Adhering to a higher number of the five healthy lifestyle behaviours is significantly associated with a lower IBS incidence in a middle-aged population.

“Our findings suggest the potential of lifestyle modifications as a primary prevention strategy for IBS.”

The team from the University of Hong Kong looked at the data from almost 65,200 people with an average age of 55.

Just over half of the group were women and none of the participants had an IBS diagnosis at the start of the study.

Over a period of 12.5 years, 961 people were found to have IBS.

In terms of the numbers of healthy behaviours people demonstrated, they found across the whole cohort that:

  • 12% reported none
  • 32% reported one
  • 34% reported two
  • 22% reported three to five.

After taking into account other factors, including family members with IBS, researchers found the healthiest people were the least at risk of developing IBS.

Other key findings included:

  • One healthy behaviour was linked to a 21% lower risk of IBS
  • A combination of two healthy behaviours was linked to a 36% lower risk
  • A combination of three to five behaviours was linked to a 42% lower risk
  • Never being a smoker was linked to a 14% lower risk
  • Lots of physical activity was linked to a 17% lower risk
  • Good sleep was linked to a 27% lower risk.

The researchers concluded: “Adhering to a higher number of the five healthy lifestyle behaviours is significantly associated with a lower IBS incidence in a middle-aged population.

“Our findings suggest the potential of lifestyle modifications as a primary prevention strategy for IBS.”

Read the study in the journal, Gut.

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