What is irritable bowel syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome, known as IBS for short is a common disorder of the digestive system. Approximately 1 in 5 people in Britain suffer with IBS. It is usually more common in women but this may be just because more women seek medical attention for IBS.
Doctors call IBS a functional disease because, it causes no long term damage to the intestines and does not lead to more serious diseases such as cancer.
What causes irritable bowel syndrome?
The cause of IBS is unknown, however, stress and gut infections are common triggers. Diet is another common trigger and though IBS can’t be blamed on an unhealthy diet, some people may have a bowel which is sensitive to particular foods.
What symptoms are associated with irritable bowel syndrome?
IBS symptoms vary in each person, for some people IBS can be a minor discomfort but for others it can be disabling. Symptoms of IBS usually begin in the late teens or early adulthood, though they may occur at any age. IBS symptoms tend to come and go and may include any of the following:
- Alternate constipation and diarrhoea.
- Stomach cramps.
- Abdominal bloating after meals. Some women say that the bloating is so severe it makes them look pregnant.
- Mucus in bowel movements.
- The need to move bowels but unable to do so.
Remember, these symptoms could indicate other problems so always consult your doctor if your symptoms persist or are severe. You should also contact your doctor if there is any blood present in your stools.
What triggers irritable bowel syndrome?
The two main triggers of IBS are thought to be diet and stress. IBS can be triggered by sensitivity to certain foods. If you can work out what foods (if any) make your IBS symptoms worse, eliminate them from your diet. Foods which commonly act as triggers include the following:
- Caffeine products e.g. tea, coffee and cola.
- Dairy products.
- Spicy foods.
- Wheat, barley and rye.
You should also avoid eating large meals, instead eat smaller meals more often or eat smaller portions. I have suffered with IBS and for me the main trigger was chewing gum. Since eliminating it from my diet I very rarely suffer any IBS symptoms.
How is irritable bowel syndrome diagnosed?
Your doctor will usually begin by giving you a physical examination and you may be asked to give a stool sample. You may also be referred to a hospital for further tests, to exclude the presence of more serious disorders. Tests the doctor might carry out include a blood test, x-ray, endoscopy (to observe the inside of the bowel) or an ultrasound. However, these tests are less likely to be carried out if you are under 40 years of age.
IBS is only really diagnosed when other possible causes are eliminated.
How is irritable bowel syndrome treated?
There is no specific treatment or cure for IBS. However, most people can manage their symptoms through a combination of diet, exercise and medication. Your doctor may suggest you go on an elimination diet to discover if your IBS symptoms react to particular foods.
Keep a record of when your IBS symptoms occur, to help you identify which food might be acting as a trigger for you. Try to eat low fat and high fibre foods, especially if one of your IBS symptoms is constipation. Ensure you increase your fibre intake gradually to allow the stomach time to get used to it. If, however, one of your major IBS symptoms is diarrhoea you should try cutting down on the amount of fibre you eat. You should also try cutting out alcohol, caffeine and dairy products to see if this helps ease symptoms and aim to drink 8 glasses of water a day.
If your symptoms are brought on by stress it may be helpful to have counselling in stress management or try hypnotherapy.
Make sure you keep physically active, exercise is a great way to improve digestion and stress. Try dancing, swimming or even walking a few times a week. There are also many homeopathic remedies available to relieve IBS symptoms. Peppermint oil capsules have a direct muscle relaxant action and have a calming effect on the digestive tract so can be very helpful, ask your pharmacist for advice.
When symptoms are present try relieving them with a hot water bottle, placed on the stomach.
Remember, though IBS can be a very distressing condition, it is not serious or life threatening and does not cause any damage to the bowel.