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IBS: Your Ultimate Guide

What causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome and what are its symptoms

Do you suffer with frequent bouts of stomach trouble? Do you find yourself in pain, bloated, urgently needing the toilet or not going at all? Have you had other health conditions tested for and ruled out? If all of this applies to you then you could be part of the reported 20% of the Western population that suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome – or IBS. The problem with this non-specific gut disorder is that there is no method of formal diagnoses; an IBS diagnosis should only usually be made once investigations have ruled out any other potential problems within the digestive tract. Because of this, and the fact that symptoms may vary from person to person, treatment is often difficult to administer. This might sound a little bleak so if you are a sufferer of IBS here is everything you need to know about the condition and some ideas on how to manage it.

Experiencing stomach trouble
Irritable bowel syndrome is more likely to be diagnosed in women, who are also more likely
to seek medical treatment for stomach problems.

Who suffers with IBS?

Anyone can have IBS at any stage of their life but it generally tends to present itself for the first time when you are in your twenties or thirties. It is also 50% more likely to be diagnosed in women than men and this is thought to be down to a number of factors including hormonal issues and the fact that historically, women are more likely to seek medical treatment for stomach discomfort than men and this therefore leads to a high number of cases recorded. Although the exact cause of IBS is unknown it is thought that genetics or past experience such as a gut infection or trauma can predispose someone to the condition.

What are the complications

Aside from the unpleasant stomach/bowel symptoms – bloating, cramping, backache, fatigue, diarrhoea, constipation (or a combination of both) – IBS is also often associated with mental health problems. Research suggests that 50-90% of people receiving treatment for IBS have also been diagnosed with a psychiatric condition such as a depression or anxiety. This is thought to be due to the painful, embarrassing and unpredictable nature of the condition which can severely impair your life quality and the limited treatment choices to improve it. However because stress and anxiety can also be major contributors in unsettling the gut, the two conditions can work alongside each other in a vicious cycle.

Exercise helps reduce IBS symptoms
A healthy lifestyle which combines balanced diet and regular exercise helps reduce
IBS symptoms and its triggers.

Diet and lifestyle factors

Experts agree that the symptoms of IBS can be reduced by practising a healthy lifestyle which combines a well balanced diet and lots of exercise. Many IBS sufferers find that they have 'trigger' foods and while these often differ from person to person, some of the most common triggers include refined carbohydrates, high fibre foods, glucose, caffeine and alcoholic drinks which may also lead to bloating. Some IBS sufferers have had positive results from using the low FODMAP diet which essentially involves cutting out the type of carbohydrates that the body struggles to metabolise.

Exercise is also thought to help relieve the symptoms as not only does it promote good overall health, but it regulates the digestive system and keeps it moving which may help those who suffer from constipation. Exercise is a natural mood enhancer. As the blood pumps around our body, the brain releases feel-good endorphins that make us feel calmer and happier. So it may go some way to reducing the stress that undoubtedly exacerbates IBS symptoms. In any case, one study revealed that IBS sufferers who exercises regularly (5 days a week) reported significant improvement in comparison with another group who did no exercise.

Peppermint plant
One of natural remedies that can help soothe IBS symptoms is peppermint oil

Medication and natural remedies

Because of the uncertainty regarding the cause of IBS and the varying triggers/symptoms that affect sufferers differently, it is difficult to treat IBS with a 'one size fits all approach.' In the Western World anti-spasmodic medication such as Merbevarine might be offered in an attempt to relax the bowel muscles and relieve cramping. Bowel sedatives and laxatives may also be recommended to either speed up or slow down the gut depending on your symptoms. If you prefer the use of natural remedies, then probiotics such as yoghurt are thought to replenish the good bacteria in the gut that can be lost in excessive diarrhoea. Peppermint oil has also been proven to greatly soothe IBS symptoms such as pain and bloating. Acupuncture is also thought to provide some relief as certain pressure points around the spleen and liver in order to restore the natural flow of the body's energy but evidence for this is limited.

This is an article by Helen Cairns

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