5 September 2011
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is the most common gut condition and causes a variety of unpleasant abdominal symptoms.
IBS affects about one in ten people at some time. It is most common among people aged between 25 and 45 but can cause problems at any age. Women are more often affected than men.
Symptoms of IBS include:
Other possible symptoms that aren't related to the gut include backache, tiredness, headaches, and urinary or gynaecological symptoms. Those with IBS predominantly have problems with diarrhoea or constipation, and the remainder have both loose and hard motions.
While IBS can cause huge disruption and destroy the quality of life for those severely affected, it's important to know that IBS is not linked to life-threatening diseases and doesn't develop into bowel cancer, for example.
Although the exact cause is unknown, and it isn't possible to prevent IBS from developing, there are certain things that trigger attacks and so should be avoided, including stress, certain foods (different in every individual), irregular mealtimes and, in some cases, a lack of dietary fibre.
What research is starting to show is that people with IBS seem to have a colon (also called the large bowel) that is super-sensitive. This is supported by the fact that some people develop IBS following gut infections and food poisoning, suggesting that these illnesses have somehow changed the gut and made it more sensitive.
There isn't a cure for IBS, but the following actions will help:
Try to work out how your diet relates to your symptoms, by comparing what you have eaten with bad attacks. Avoid fat-rich food, such as dairy food, ensure your milk is skimmed or semi-skimmed, and cook with minimal fat by baking or steaming food rather than frying or roasting. Avoid large meals as they can trigger spasms. Instead, eat small amounts more often.
Make sure that you rule out lactose intolerance as a cause of your symptoms – this condition is often mistaken for IBS. Lactose intolerance can cause symptoms very similar to IBS. Cut down on dairy products and see if your symptoms improve.
Fibre can help to reduce IBS symptoms and prevent spasms. Be careful what type of fibre you eat and how much you consume because people can react very differently. Current thinking is that soluble fibre is probably most helpful for people with IBS. High levels of soluble fibre are found in vegetables, such as potatoes, and some fruits (apples and citrus), dried beans, oats and barley. Insoluble fibre may also be helpful for constipation. Good sources include wheat bran, whole grains, cereals, seeds and the skins of many fruits and vegetables.
Try to get as much sleep as you need, ensure there's at least one set period each week when you can have some time exclusively for yourself (ideally, you should do this at least once a day) and take up some relaxation therapies.
There are drugs that can help reduce spasms in IBS. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist, especially if things get really bad. Occasionally, chronic gastrointestinal infections can lead to IBS symptoms, so it's important you see your doctor to confirm the diagnosis is IBS. If you pass blood when you open your bowels, get checked by your doctor as this isn't normal, even in IBS.
Peppermint oil and antispasmodic medication relieve abdominal pain. Anti-diarrhoea medication will stop diarrhoea. If constipation is a problem then increasing fluid, fibre, activity, as well as taking a gentle laxative may be recommended.
More recent research has shown that improving the natural gut flora or friendly bacteria found within the gut can reduce symptoms. You can do this either by taking prebiotics (special “foods” which increase the levels of your own bacteria), probiotics (extra supplements of gut bacteria themselves) or a combination of both. The most natural source of probiotics are foods such as washed but unpeeled root vegetables, but it is difficult to get enough this way. You can use probiotic yoghurts and drinks but the best way to be sure to get good concentrations of the friendly bacteria into the gut may be to take specific probiotic supplements (ask in the pharmacy or at your health store).
Studies have shown that these treatments may help reduce symptoms such as bloating and flatulence. Friendly bacteria to look out for include Lactobacillus rhamnosus plantarum, VSL#3 (a mixture of lactobacilli), and bifidobacteria.
The IBS Network is the largest national patient-led charity for people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome in the United Kingdom.
Core is the only charity in the UK that funds research into the entire range of gut, liver, intestinal and bowel illnesses.
This information should not be treated as a substitute for medical advice from your GP.