Stomach ache, bloating, wind… we’ve all experienced these uncomfortable, often embarrassing, symptoms at some time. But if feeling like this is the norm, you may be suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
It’s the most common intestinal disorder and it affects up to a quarter of the UK population, with more women suffering than men.
Because symptoms can be embarrassing, people often try to hide them as they worry secretly there’s something more seriously wrong.
No one knows the exact cause but we think it’s down to an abnormality in the way muscles contract in the large intestine.
For some reason, the bowel becomes sensitised so the intestines go into overdrive, over-contracting when triggered by certain foods, stress, anxiety or illness.
Sometimes the intestines may even go into spasm, causing a colicky type of pain.
On the positive side, it’s not serious or life-threatening, but severe symptoms can affect day-to-day life. Knowing how to keep it under control is key, but everyone is different.
Watch out for:
*Pain with bowel movement
*The feeling that your bowel hasn’t emptied properly
Tests to expect:
There’s no specific test for IBS, so your doctor may diagnose it after asking questions about your symptoms and carrying out a blood test to rule out infection or a gluten intolerance.
He or she may refer you to the hospital for further tests if you have a family history of bowel problems, are over 60 and have had a change in bowel habits for more than six weeks, or have symptoms such as bleeding or unexplained weight loss. That’s because all these could be linked to more serious bowel conditions.
Irritable bowel syndrome
Tests may involve using an endoscope, a flexible tube-like instrument, to look inside your bowel, or an X-ray of your abdomen called a barium enema, which highlights inflamed or ulcerated areas of the colon.
Rather than getting a complete cure, most sufferers find they learn to manage their symptoms through a combination of medication, diet and lifestyle.
*Your doctor may prescribe a short course of anti-diarrhoeal drugs (such as loperamide) for persistent diarrhoea and antispasmodic drugs (like mebeverine) for muscle spasm and abdominal pain.
*Try probiotics, which help reduce the number of harmful bacteria in the gut, and have been shown to help IBS symptoms. But only buy those that contain at least 10 billion bacteria.
*Try mind over matter. Studies into cognitive behavioural therapy show that people who train themselves to react differently to their condition, using relaxation techniques and a positive attitude, report a decrease in pain. Some people also find that hypnotherapy and counselling help.
You may have to try several different approaches before finding one that helps you:
*Keep a food diary for around six weeks, noting what you eat and what symptoms you have to see whether a pattern emerges. Then eliminate any food or drink that seems to bring on an attack. Reintroduce the foods one by one to help you identify the culprits.
*If constipation is a problem, gradually increase your fibre intake by eating plenty of whole grains, cereal and fresh fruit and vegetables. A bulking agent, such as psyllium husk, bran or isphagula, sterculia and methylcellulose may help — ask your pharmacist for advice.
*If bloating and diarrhoea are problems, reduce fibre intake.
*Cut out or reduce tea, coffee, milk, cola and beer, which contain stimulants that may exacerbate symptoms.
*Cut down on sugary or yeasty foods, which cause fermentation. These include sugar, dairy products,
grapes and alcohol, especially wine.
*Limit red meat, which is hard to digest, and have fish and skinless white meat.
*Eat at regular times to help calm the bowel.
*Drink peppermint tea, which aids digestion.
*Avoid large meals, spicy, fried or fatty foods or milk, which can worsen symptoms.