Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a long-term condition of the digestive system thought to affect around one in five people at some point in their lives.
There’s a good chance it affects the health of someone in your family, with around twice as many women as men suffering.
Symptoms vary and affect some people more severely than others. It can cause stomach cramps, bloating and diarrhoea and/or constipation.
The exact cause of IBS isn’t known and typically, symptoms come and go. Patients may go months without symptoms, then have a flare-up.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome triggers
Triggers include stress or eating certain foods – chocolate, anything containing caffeine, processed snacks or fried and fatty foods – smoking and alcohol.
Experts believe IBS is related to increased gut sensitivity and digestion problems. Usually, food moves through the digestive system via a rhythmic squeezing and relaxing of the intestines.
In patients with IBS, food moves too quickly or slowly.
Normal gut function can also be affected by an increase in serotonin levels, which can happen after eating certain foods during times of stress.
People with IBS may be oversensitive to nerve signals from the digestive system: mild indigestion barely noticeable to some becomes severe abdominal pain.
Psychological factors may also play a role.
Diet and lifestyle
Changes to diet and lifestyle can help and keeping a food diary is a good way to identify triggers.
Cutting down on foods containing insoluble fibre, which the body can’t digest – wholegrain bread, bran cereals and nuts and seeds – can help alleviate diarrhoea.
Increasing the amount of foods containing soluble fibre, such as oats, barley, bananas and root vegetables, can help constipation.
A number of over the counter irritable bowel syndrome treatments are available.
A recent development is the ‘FODMAP diet’ which is based on a link between IBS and foods that ferment more than others in the gut. FODMAP provides patients with a list of ‘high’ or ‘low’ fermenting foods.
Other self-help treatments include regular exercise, eating regularly and taking time over a meal, drinking plenty of water and reducing the amount of alcohol, fizzy drinks and processed foods consumed.
While it isn’t a serious threat to a patient’s physical health, IBS can be debilitating and impact on quality of life.
There are no specific tests to confirm the condition, and your GP may want to exclude other gut disorders before treating for IBS.
A range of different medications can help control symptoms, including drugs to reduce cramps, others to relieve diarrhoea and constipation, and low-dose antidepressants. Therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and hypnotherapy, can also help.