Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common condition estimated to effect between 10-15% of the population in Europe and the USA.
The most commonly complained of symptoms can be easily recalled as the ABC.
As these symptoms, especially if new for you, can also be linked to more serious conditions it is vital that a health professional be consulted in order to make an initial diagnosis. As this can be an embarrassing topic for many to discuss the temptation to treat oneself or ignore the problem can be there, but remember your GP will be well used to discussing these issues and should be able to put you at ease with some simple tests in order to confirm a diagnosis. For most a camera test (endoscopy) of the bowel is not required.
The good news is that there are many simple treatment options and lifestyle changes that can greatly improve the symptoms of IBS. IBS is considered a motility disorder this means that the bowels function, which is to move the digested food along while taking out the important nutrients, can be upset. Put simply it becomes either too slow, too fast or produces excessive gas often felt as pain, bloating or an alteration of bowel habit. It is also thought that pain nerves in the bowel may be more sensitive in some people to bowel contractions or spasms.
Many people with IBS may have quite healthy diets high in fruit and fibre and surprisingly this may actually contribute to the problem.The following dietary guide has been shown to improve symptoms for many:
- Eat regular meals & take time to eat skipping meals or eating on the hoof may provoke symptoms.
- Drink at least 8 cups of fluid per day (water and non-caffeinated e.g. herbal teas)
Restrict tea, coffee and fizzy drinks.
- Avoid sorbitol (artificial sweetener) found in sugar free gum and diet drinks it acts as a laxative.
- Review your fibre intake choose soluble fibre especially oats, some type of insoluble fibres such as bran, whole grain rice and cereals may exacerbate problems in excess, especially if your symptoms are diarrhoea dominant.
- Oats and linseed ( a tablespoon per day) will help wind and bloating symptoms in particular try starting the day with porridge.
- Keep fresh fruit to 3 portions a day (increase vegetables instead to maintain your 5 a day).
- A 4 week trial of probiotics can be useful for some.
- Reduce alcohol and stop smoking.
Doctors sometimes talk of abdominal migraine or tummy headache! there is a lot of truth in the idea of feeling things in your gut many find their symptoms flare at stressful times, helping your mind can often help symptoms.
- Get a formal diagnosis for many easing the worry that a cancer, coeliac or inflammatory bowel disease may be causing their symptoms can be very therapeutic
- Increase exercise and time for relaxation: Educate yourself, information is power! read up on IBS and self-help relaxation techniques such as mindfulness
- Medication: There is a lot of good research behind medication that can assist with symptoms of IBS and not all are on prescription. Your GP may often prescribe an anti-spasmodic medication (eg hyoscine) which has proven benefits to relieve pain.Simple medication to relieve diarrhoea (loperamide) or constipation (ispaghula husk or powder) are available over the counter. Avoid the commonly used laxative lactulose which may exacerbate symptoms.
- Peppermint oil has been proven to be of great benefit it is best taken regularly, in capsules, three times per day on an ongoing basis. Peppermint tea is also a good choice to aid digestion and as an alternative to caffeinated drinks.
- There is also good evidence to support, in a small number of cases where other treatments have failed, low doses of some medication usually used as anti-depressant treatments for IBS. This may seem unusual but research is showing that the benefits of this medication can, in some cases, aid in conditions with physical symptoms such as IBS. This should always be undertaken only in consultation with your GP.
For those suffering, IBS is a very real and at times very difficult condition. However as discussed there are many small changes that can be made to diet and lifestyle and simple remedies and medications available that are proven to help peoples symptoms. As always it is vital, especially as this can be a difficult topic for some to broach, to never ignore a new change in bowel habit, persistent abdominal pain, weight loss or passage of blood (known as red flag symptoms) particularly if you are over 50 Although these more serious symptoms are thankfully rare, please talk to your health professional if you have any concerns, they will be more than happy to help.