IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, is a common condition which affects the digestive system. Symptoms can vary from person to person, and can come in waves depending on what is happening is the person’s life at that particular time. IBS can often be brought on by stress or by eating certain foods, and can cause stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation. “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,” explains nutritional therapist Helen Williams. “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 may be one or a combination of the following,” explains Helen:
“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,” cautions Helen.
Although the exact cause is unknown, IBS is thought to be brought on by increased sensitivity in the gut. A change in how your body digests food, food poisoning or certain psychological factors can all contribute to how sensitive your gut is, and are all thought to play a part in causing IBS as a result.
In terms of the digestive system, IBS is thought to occur when food moves through the gut at an abnormal pace - either too slowly, causing constipation, or too quickly, causing diarrhoea. If the signals which travel between the brain and gut are disrupted, the nerves of the digestive system may suffer as a result and this may be one factor which leads to IBS.
If you are oversensitive to these nerve signals in your digestive system, common conditions such as mild indigestion may become severe abdominal pain in those people who suffer from IBS.
Psychological factors can also play an important role, as intense emotions such as severe stress and anxiety can cause chemical changes in the body and disrupt the normal workings of the digestive system. Even if you do not suffer from IBS, in situations which are intense (such as an important exam) bowel habits can change suddenly.
There are also thought to be certain types of food which can trigger the symptoms of IBS in sufferers. Although they can vary widely between people, the most common include alcohol, fizzy drinks, chocolate, caffeine, processed snacks, fried food and fatty food.
As the triggers of IBS can vary so widely, your doctor - after ruling out other conditions such as coeliac disease or infection - may ask you to keep a food diary to try and work out which foods and/or other factors are causing you problems. They may also look for patterns - for example whether or not your symptoms come on when you are under a lot of stress - and will only test further if symptoms are severe enough to suggest a more serious underlying condition. Symptoms such as unexplained weight loss, swelling or lumps in the abdomen or back passage or anaemia will normally all require further testing.
Although there is no cure for IBS, by making simple changes to your diet and lifestyle the condition can be controlled and managed. The condition can be unpredictable, and symptoms may flare-up at any time with episodes lasting anywhere from a few days to a few months.
Many people with IBS will be asked to control their diet. Through asking about your symptoms and reactions to different types of food, your doctor should be able to come up with the diet plan that works best for you. Keeping a food diary may be helpful in letting you know which foods you should avoid and modifying your intake of fibre can often help ease symptoms also.
If you suffer from IBS with diarrhoea, cutting down on the amount of insoluble fibre (wholegrain bread, bran, cereals, nuts, seeds) you eat may help, while increasing the amount of soluble fibre (oats, barley, rye, fruit, root vegetables) you eat can help ease symptoms of constipation.
As well as changing your diet, symptoms of IBS can also be eased by the following:
There are several types of medication which can be used to help treat IBS. These include:
Reducing the amount of stress and intense emotion in your life may also help ease the symptoms of IBS. Breathing exercises, meditation, yoga and regular exercise (such as swimming or running) are all goods way of reducing stress.