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Do you have IBS symptoms?

November 28th 2014 / Hanna Ibraheem

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Nutritionist Helen Williams explains how to spot if you’re suffering from irritable bowel syndrome…

One in five people will experience irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) at some point in their lives, yet it’s still difficult to diagnose, as symptoms vary for everyone. While there is no cure for IBS, it is important to be aware of potential indications so that you can take action immediately.

We spoke to Nutritionist Helen Williams about what symptoms we need to look out for and the steps we should take if we suspect that we’re suffering from the condition.

What exactly is IBS?

IBS is an extremely common gastro-intestinal order that affects the large intestine or colon. Around the world, it is estimated that some 10 - 20% of the population suffer and it appears to affect more women than men. This is not an inconsequential number and it can result in the loss of function, misery, anxiety, pain, bloating, altered bowel habits and loss of quality of life.

In a healthy gut, food moves along the tract by the rhythmic contracting and relaxing of the muscles that line the intestines (known as peristalsis). In the case of IBS, the muscles go into spasm. The contractions can be stronger and last longer, which leads to gas, bloating and diarrhoea, or the contractions can be weak, which slows the passage of food and leads to constipation. Often people have a combination of both.

Symptoms usually begin in early adulthood and may last days, weeks or even months. The vagueness of symptoms does not make for an easy diagnosis or treatment but with 20% of the adult population in the UK experiencing bouts of IBS this problem definitely needs support and hopefully a solution.

What causes IBS?

Factors that may be influencing IBS can be quite different for each person. Anything that may depress the immune system and allow the proliferation of harmful bacteria in the bowel alters the balance of gut flora, which may influence IBS.

Factors may be physiological, psychological and dietary and include:

  • Food intolerances - the most common being gluten and dairy
  • Candida or yeast overgrowth
  • Parasites (such as Blastocysytis hominis, Endolimax nana, Giardia lamblia
  • Bacterial infections (such as Citrobacter freundii, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Staphylococcus aureus)
  • Disturbed gut flora as a result of antibiotics, steroids, NSAIDS or antacid use
  • Laxative abuse
  • A diet high in refined sugars
  • Excessive consumption of tea, coffee, carbonated drinks
  • Long term use of the contraceptive pill
  • Stress
  • Family history of IBS

What are the symptoms of IBS?

Symptoms may be one or a combination of the following:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Altered bowel function: fluctuating diarrhoea and/or constipation
  • Flatulence and bloating
  • Chronic fatigue, anxiety, depression, headaches, poor concentration, nausea
  • Mucus in the stool

What should we be careful to not confuse symptoms with?

It is important to consult your GP for a proper diagnosis in order to rule out other conditions which may be linked to similar symptoms, such as diverticular disease, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, infectious diarrhoea, malabsorption diseases, diabetes and coeliac disease.

How can we spot if we have IBS?

If you suspect you have IBS, you should see your doctor - do not self diagnose. In particular, anybody who is experiencing changes in bowel habits, bleeding, unexplained weight loss or fatigue must see their doctor as soon as possible.

There is no definitive test for IBS as such, so it is essential to create a picture of what is causing the symptoms for each individual. If your doctor has diagnosed you with IBS, working with a nutritional therapist, who uses a functional medicine model, may be very helpful. The goal of functional nutrition is not to diagnose or treat, but instead identify the root cause of physiological imbalances within the body that can result in dysfunction.

A functional nutritionist will often use functional lab tests to identify malfunctions within the immune, digestive, hormonal and detoxification systems and work with a client to provide a holistic programme to restore normal digestive function and health. This usually addresses diet, rest, exercise and stress reduction. Functional nutrition holds the utmost respect for biochemical individuality and as such, each programme should be tailored to the individual rather than a "one size fits all" approach.

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