Irritable Bowel Syndrome - All you need to know

Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBM is a long-term condition that affects the digestive system. Around 6-18% of people around the world are affected by IBS. However, it is slightly more common in women than men and usually starts in early adulthood.

The main symptoms include:

  • Tummy pain or cramp, which might ease after going to the toilet

  • Bloating, when the tummy feels uncomfortably full and swollen

  • Diarrhoea or constipation- sometimes alternating phases of diarrhoea and constipation

  • Too much gas

  • Mucus in stool

These symptoms will come and go from time to time, with some days being better and other days being worse. Most people with IBS experience times when these symptoms are worse and times when they improve or even disappear entirely.

Causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Some of the reasons why you may suffer from IBS include:

  • Contraction of muscles in the intestines

When your food enters your body, it is broken down and absorbed into the body. To keep the food moving through the system, the wall of the bowel squeezes in on itself in a rhythmic way, slowly pushing its contents through the gut. IBS affects the gut, and more specifically, the large bowel or colon.

In IBS, the gut wall becomes more sensitive and excitable. The contractions sometimes occur too quickly, causing diarrhoea, or they occur too slowly, causing constipation.

  • Abnormalities in the nervous system

Problems with the nerves in your digestive system can cause a lot of pain and discomfort when your abdomen stretches from stool or gas. This is caused by poorly sent signals between your brain and your intestines. It can cause your body to overreact to changes that generally occur in the digestive process, resulting in pain, diarrhoea or constipation.

  • Intestine inflammation

There are times when the immune system cells in your intestines are in large number. This kind of response by the immune system is linked to diarrhoea and pain.

  • Changes in microflora

Microflora is the good bacteria in your intestines, playing a significant role in your health. Changes in these bacteria can also affect the way your gut functions.

  • Infections

Overgrowth of bacteria in the intestines is also a fundamental cause for IBS. Bacteria might start multiplying in the intestine after a severe phase of diarrhoea, thereby leaving a trace for further infections.

Doctors can diagnose IBS based on the symptoms, and after other types of bowel disease are ruled out through blood tests and stool tests. These other bowel conditions include inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease and bowel cancer. If you experience different symptoms such as weight loss, fever, and blood in the stools, it is essential to see a doctor to rule out these more serious bowel conditions.

Treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

There is no single treatment that works for everyone. But there are lots of things you can try, such as finding ways to reduce stress levels and doing regular exercise. Keep a symptom diary, so you can see which foods or activities seem to bring on symptoms and avoid them.

Certain food groups, which form the acronym FODMAPs, are common triggers for IBS symptoms. Therefore a low FODMAP diet can help, but you should speak to a dietician or doctor before making significant changes to your diet.

A range of over-the-counter medications can also help with symptoms. It includes medicines that reduce bowel spasm and drugs to help relieve constipation or diarrhoea.

If these simple medicines and steps are not helping, your doctor may suggest other options such as antidepressants and psychological therapies, mainly if stress and anxiety is the issue.

There is no single fix for IBS, and it is often a lifelong condition. However, symptoms will tend to come and go. You may have long spells with only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. When flare-ups do happen, they can impact on daily life, which can be frustrating.

Patient support groups are available to connect with others who are going through similar experiences. Relaxation techniques, dietary changes and medications can all help to control symptoms, though it may take some time to figure out what works best for you.