Have I got IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome, often shortened to IBS, is a long-term condition which affects the digestive system. But what exactly is it, what causes it and how do you know if you're affected? We lift the lid on your IBS questions.
What is IBS?
This digestive system condition is surprisingly common, affecting as many as one in five people, and usually developing between the ages of 20 and 30. It's thought that almost twice as many women are affected as men. Our bodies normally move food through our digestive system by squeezing and relaxing intestinal muscles. In IBS sufferers, this process is altered, with muscles moving food too fast or too slowly through the digestive system, leading to painful symptoms. Common symptoms include constipation, diarrhoea, bloating and stomach cramps, and although the condition can improve over the course of a few years, those affected by IBS may find they suffer from it for their whole lives.
What causes IBS?
Whilst the exact cause of IBS is unknown, medical experts think that it is linked to increased gut sensitivity and digestion problems. Experiencing these problems can mean you're more sensitive to pain in the stomach, and if food passes more slowly or quickly through your gut, you may suffer from constipation or diarrhoea as a result.
Even stress may have a role to play in IBS; it's thought that increased serotonin levels could affect gut function. It could be that IBS sufferers are overly sensitive to the nerve signals our digestive system sends to the brain. In fact, evidence supports the claim that psychological factors have a part to play in the development of IBS too. Even if you've never had IBS before, a stressful situation such as moving home or a relationship breakup can cause symptoms to flare up.
Do I have IBS?
So how do you know whether the symptoms you're experiencing are actually IBS or just the aftermath of that dodgy kebab you had on the way home (trust us, it's never worth it)?
Most people will have 'flare-ups' of symptoms that last a few days. After this, symptoms normally improve but may not vanish completely.
Common symptoms of IBS include:
- Abdominal cramps and pain - these may be relieved by having a bowel movement
- Bloated or swollen stomach
- Change in bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhoea
- Excessive flatulence
- Occasional urgent need for the toilet
- Passing mucus from your bottom
- A feeling of not having fully emptied your bowels after using the toilet
There are other, less common symptoms too, and IBS sufferers could experience any of these:
- Feeling sick
- Lack of energy
- Pain during sex
- Bladder problems - e.g. needing the toilet during the night
- Back pain
If you're suffering from symptoms that you think could be IBS, you should always make an appointment to see your GP - they will consider an assessment for IBS if the following symptoms have been present for at least 6 months:
- Abdominal pain
- Changes in bowel habits
Normally your GP will also look for at least two of the following symptoms:
- Change in how you pass stools - e.g. feeling you haven't emptied your bowels fully
- Symptoms that worsen after eating
- Passing mucus from the bottom
- Tension, hardness or bloating in the stomach
Your GP may make a diagnosis based on these symptoms alone, or they can send you for blood tests to rule out other conditions such as coeliac disease (gluten intolerance). Often, a stool sample will be tested for the presence of calprotectin, a substance produced by an inflamed gut. The presence of this could mean you have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
How is IBS treated?
When you're diagnosed with IBS, it's ok to feel a bit worried - but try not to stress out, as this can make symptoms worse. IBS can usually be managed by making some diet and lifestyle changes.
Your GP may suggest keeping a food diary, to identify potential triggers for your symptoms. Sufferers are often advised to modify the amount of fibre in their diet.
- Constipation - Increase the amount of soluble fibre (found in oats, fruit and root vegetables) in your diet, and drink more water
- Diarrhoea - Cut down on your intake of insoluble fibre, found in cereals, nuts and seeds and wholegrain bread
Other diet tips which can help include:
- Ensuring you eat regular meals and taking time to eat - don't leave long gaps between meals or skip meals
- Drink at least 8 cups of water or caffeine-free herbal tea a day
- Limit your tea and coffee intake to 3 cups a day
- Drink less fizzy drinks and alcohol
- Limit your fruit to 3 portions a day
- Sorbitol, an artificial sweetener found in many diet products, gum and drinks, should be avoided if you have diarrhoea
- Eat oats if you have flatulence - why not have porridge for breakfast?
There are plenty of ways to reduce stress in your life which can be beneficial for avoiding an IBS flare-up:
- Take regular exercise, such as running, walking, cycling or swimming
- Try relaxing exercise such as Pilates, Tai Chi or Yoga
- Practice meditation and breathing exercises to help you unwind
Your doctor may recommend taking a course of probiotics, which contain 'friendly bacteria' that help to restore balance in your gut, or they may prescribe laxatives, antispasmodics (to ease abdominal pain and cramping) or anti-motility medicines (to relieve diarrhoea).
There's some evidence to suggest that psychological treatment can help IBS sufferers, so consider hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or psychotherapy.
Many sufferers swear by alternative medicine such as acupuncture and reflexology, but there's no medical evidence to support claims that these types of treatment help.
Take a deep breath
It's not the end of the world if you have been diagnosed with IBS. If you're suffering from symptoms and haven't received a diagnosis yet, visit your GP as soon as you can - the sooner you are diagnosed, the more quickly you can make changes which will alleviate your symptoms.