Did you know that Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can affect up to one in five people at some point in their lives? Symptoms can range from a regularly gurgling stomach to severe abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, constipation and bloating.
Doctors don’t know why some people have IBS, but most believe that it’s caused by a modern, stressful lifestyle, food intolerance, nervous disorders and possibly hormones. It usually first develops when a person is between 20 and 30 years of age, and around twice as many women are affected as men.
What is IBS?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is when your intestines don’t function properly and have trouble passing food from the stomach through the intestines to the bowel.
The intestines are a big muscle that contracts and relaxes to move food from your stomach through your intestines to your bowel. Normally, the intestines contract and relax in a coordinated rhythm. But if you have IBS these contractions don’t work as well and food can be forced through your intestines more quickly, causing wind, bloating and diarrhoea. Or in some cases the opposite happens and food passes through very slowly and you get cramps and constipation.
How do I know if I’ve got IBS?
IBS has lots of different symptoms, the most common are:
- Feeling sick after eating
- Passing wind
- Feeling the urge to go the loo or passing stools very often
- Stomach and abdominal cramps
- Feeling that you have not fully emptied your bowels after going to the toilet
What are the causes of IBS?
No-one knows what causes irritable bowel syndrome but there’s lots of evidence to suggest that stress, certain foods and hormones can play a part.
Should I see my doctor if I think I have IBS?
If you ever have any bowel or stomach problems go and see your doctor, especially if you get symptoms on a regular basis. Just a few years ago there wasn’t much that could be done about IBS but now there’s lots of help and medication.
How is IBS treated?
Doctors have many ways to treat IBS depending on the symptoms and the medical history of the individual. Treatment ranges from prescription medication for the most severe problems to over-the-counter remedies.
Sometimes your GP might refer you to a gut specialist or recommend a course of stress management; sometimes anti-depressants are prescribed too. In all cases doctors will urge you to adjust your diet and lifestyle to help address the symptoms.
Natural ways to control IBS symptoms
Low Fodmap diet
Trying a diet that eradicates the foods known to cause flare ups for IBS sufferers is a good long-term plan to get symptoms under control. The Low Fodmap diet was designed especially for IBS sufferers, although it can also be followed as part of a healthy lifestyle too. Fodmap stands for ‘fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols’ which are all types of carbohydrates that aren’t easily broken down and absorbed by the gut.
Keeping a food diary can help you to find out if there are any particular foods or drinks that are causing the symptoms. For example, caffeine is a common trigger, so keep a note and try cutting things out one at a time to see if it makes a difference.
Stress is a cause for many sufferers of IBS. Try to set aside a few minutes each to day to relax and never eat when you’re stressed, as this could make your symptoms worse.
Eat more fibre
If you have IBS then it’s best to modify the amount of fibre in your diet, and to get to know which foods contain soluble fibre (the type your body can digest), such as:
- Fruit – such as bananas and apples
- Root vegetables – such as carrots and potatoes
- Golden linseeds
Take a probiotic and a prebiotic supplement – you can get them from health food shops and chemists. These are the good bacteria that your digestive system needs and the enzymes your gut bacteria needs to thrive.
Of course we all know how important exercise is for us to look and feel healthier, but this can also have a huge impact for people suffering with IBS symptoms. Many people find that exercise helps, so aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as cycling or fast walking, every week.
IBS foods to avoid
There are certain foods that can trigger the symptoms of IBS, so take a look at the list below for the items to try cutting down or out of your diet.
- Reduce the amount of alcohol and fizzy drinks
- Reduce the amount of tea and coffee
- Reduce high fat dairy foods
- Reduce your intake of fatty meat
- Limit fresh fruit to three portions a day
- Avoid hot chilli
- Avoid sorbitol (the artificial sweetener found in sugar-free sweets and chewing gum)