Evidence that gut bacteria could be causing IBS symptoms means treatment with antibiotics offers fresh hope for sufferers.
Irritable bowel syndrome was once the Loch Ness Monster of illnesses – a mystery that no one could quite fathom. If you had it, you might even have been told it was ‘all in your mind.’ And doctors weren’t much better informed. People who saw their GP with symptoms such as painful bloating, diarrhoea or constipation or both might have been told they may have IBS, but the diagnosis wasn’t much help as treatments were focused on alleviating symptoms and weren’t very effective. Now research published in medical journal Digestive Diseases and Sciences has confirmed that gut bacteria are directly linked to IBS, making antibiotics a potentially effective treatment.
While previous studies have suggested that bacteria are involved in the condition, this is the first time the link has been made using bacterial cultures – producing a definitive result. Using bowel culture samples, researchers from Cedars-Sinai hospital, Los Angeles confirmed that small intestinal bacterial overgrowth was far more prevalent in patients with IBS than those without; more than a third of IBS patients had the overgrowth, compared with only 10% of those who had not been diagnosed with the condition.
Patients who had diarrhoea-predominant IBS were even more likely to have bacterial overgrowth, with 60% having high levels of small intestinal bacteria. IBS hasn’t always been taken seriously as an illness, with many people, including some doctors, dismissing it as not being a ‘real’ problem. Patients’ symptoms were sometimes blamed on stress, on psychological problems or as a symptom of unhealthy eating.
But in the last 20 years or so the number of people diagnosed with IBS has risen to one in 10. This has been helpful in one respect: the more people who have it, the more difficult it is for others to dismiss it. IBS can have a profound effect on a person’s wellbeing; aside from making the simple act of eating a meal potentially painful, it also affects everyday life in other ways. Many sufferers feel reluctant to take part in social events because of the embarrassing and painful symptoms.
Now there is concrete evidence linking bacterial overgrowth and IBS, patients can be offered antibiotics. The same researchers have done clinical trials with an antibiotic that is only absorbed in the gut – rifaximin – that has been shown to dramatically reduce bacteria levels in the gut, alleviating the problems associated with IBS.