IBS is short for Irritable Bowel Syndrome – a chronic condition which affects the digestive system in the long-term. The small and large intestine in particular are affected by IBS and the most common symptoms include constipation, diarrhoea and abdominal pain. This condition doesn’t have a specific cure and it can be embarrassing and have a major impact on your quality of life. There are, however, medicines which exist which can encourage the muscles in your digestive system to work normally again.
Lifestyle changes can also help keep this area of the body in check. If you suspect you have IBS, then it’s worth speaking to your doctor about it, so they can identify what type of IBS and rule out the possibility that you may have a different condition with similar symptoms.
Dr. Diana Gall
Our Health Care Team
"Irritable Bowel Syndrome can cause numerous symptoms including abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhoea and constipation. Someone with IBS could experience all of these symptoms or just some of them. While IBS is not life-threatening, it is irritating (like the name says!) and can impact on quality of life. IBS can be part of someone’s life for a long time, but there are lifestyle adjustments and medicines that can be considered to manage the condition effectively."
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) explained
Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS for short, is a long-term (or potentially lifelong) condition which affects the digestive system. It can lead to symptoms such as flatulence, diarrhoea, intestinal pain and constipation. The condition is usually not life-threatening, but it can cause a lot of discomfort, pain and embarrassment.
IBS is a common disorder which can affect men and women of all ages, although women are more commonly diagnosed with it. It’s thought that patients with IBS experience the condition mainly because food passes through the digestive system either too quickly or too slowly, causing a disruptive change in bowel habits.
In otherwise healthy people, constipation is usually caused by a lack of fibre or fluids in their diet and diarrhoea is usually instigated by a bug or infection. But either constipation or diarrhoea (or both) can occur if someone has IBS and just the condition itself can be the culprit.
The general cause of IBS is not yet known, but it’s thought that stress and anxiety can aggravate symptoms. Some people have theorised that IBS can happen as a result of a food intolerance, but there’s no solid evidence to back this idea.
It should be pointed out that gluten or lactose intolerance are completely separate conditions. Despite that, it may be beneficial to keep a food diary to see if any particular foods seem to worsen your IBS.
Not everyone who has Irritable Bowel Syndrome goes through the same experiences. The exact symptoms can vary and there are different types of IBS which can be diagnosed. The type of IBS you are diagnosed with depends on the main symptom. The types of IBS include the following:
- IBS-D – The main symptom of this type is diarrhoea
- IBS-C – Constipation is the main symptom of this type of IBS
- IBS-A – Also known as IBS-M, this type of IBS causes both constipation and diarrhoea as main symptoms
Regardless of the type, IBS can also cause some or all of the following symptoms:
- Stomach pain or cramps (usually worse after eating)
- Bloating (tummy feels full or swollen)
- Problems peeing (in terms of urgency and frequency)
- Tiredness and a lack of energy
The direct cause of irritable bowel syndrome has not been confirmed, but it has been found that people with IBS have a more sensitive gut than average and they may have issues with digesting certain foods which can cause symptoms to intensify. Symptoms of IBS are not always present and they can increase or decrease over periods of time depending on the circumstances.
Common triggers for causing flare ups can include stress, fried or processed food, chocolate, alcohol, fizzy drinks and caffeine.
There is no special test for identifying IBS, but if you think you may have it based on your symptoms, then it’s best to arrange an appointment with your GP. When visiting your GP, you will be asked about the symptoms you’re experiencing, including how often you get them, if they come and go and when you get them. Your tummy may also be checked for lumps and swelling.
Your GP may arrange for certain tests to take place to rule out certain conditions which cause similar symptoms. For instance, you may have a blood test to check for problems like coeliac disease. There might also be tests done on a sample of your faeces to check for signs of infection and IBS.
While working to identify if you have IBS, your GP/doctor will essentially have a checklist of issues which ordinarily appear in IBS patients. If at least a couple of things on this list come up, then an IBS diagnosis is almost certain. If you’re showing enough signs to indicate IBS and other conditions have been ruled out, then your GP/doctor will discuss with you what the treatment options are.
Frustratingly, there is no single diet or medication which can help everyone prevent IBS symptoms. IBS is often a chronic or even lifelong condition which cannot be cured simply, but there are a lot of things you can do to manage the condition.
Before even starting any sort of medication, you can reduce the severity of symptoms with some lifestyle changes, such as the following:
- Avoid eating lots of fatty, spicy or processed foods. It’s also helpful to avoid having more than 3 portions of fresh fruit a day (80g is considered a portion).
- It’s a good idea to have soluble fibre foods such as oats, carrots, peeled potatoes and linseeds on a regular basis. Cook homemade meals using fresh ingredients when possible
- Avoid having 3 cups of tea or coffee a day and avoid having a lot of alcohol or fizzy drinks too
- Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration and reduce your chances of having diarrhoea
- Try to get plenty of exercise but also find ways to relax too
- Avoid delaying or skipping meals as much as possible
- Keep a diary of what you eat and what (if any) symptoms you experience sometime after certain meals. This can give you a better idea of what triggers your IBS.
There are several medications which exist that are effective at treating IBS symptoms. Which one is best suited for you to use depends largely on what type of IBS you have been diagnosed with.
One noteworthy example is mebeverine, which can relax muscles in the gut to assist with the process of digesting food. It is usually prescribed for treating IBS-D, but it may be used alongside other medications depending on the range of symptoms a patient is experiencing. Other medications used for treating IBS include Loperamide, Fybogel and Buscopan.