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Irritable Bowel Syndrome

lady with tummy pain
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder of the digestive system. It is estimated that one in five people suffer from this debilitating condition which mostly appears in countries which consume a Western diet.

Everyone suffers from an occasional bowel disturbance. However, for those with IBS, the symptoms are more severe, or occur more often, either continuously or off and on. The condition can affect men and women of all ages but most commonly starts in late teens or early adulthood.

"Irritable Bowel" refers to a disturbance in the regulation of bowel function that results in unusual sensitivity and muscle activity. "Syndrome" refers to a set of symptoms.
Common Symptoms of IBS - not everyone will experience them all.

Abdominal bloating after meals
A change in bowel habit which includes constipation or diarrhoea or an alternation between the two
A sense of urgency, requiring an immediate visit to the toilet to open bowels
Discomfort which can range from a dull ache or cramps/spasms in the upper and lower abdomen to stabbing pains in the rectum
Frequent belching or passing wind through the anus
Feeling of incomplete emptying of bowels
Increased gurgling sounds in the abdomen which may be quite embarrassing.

Doctors usually make a diagnosis from the description of symptoms given by the patient. Those over 40 should be sent for tests to exclude other conditions such as Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, Diverticular Disease or Cancer.
The tests may include:

Endoscopy - a narrow, flexible, fibre-optic tube with a camera to look inside the bowel

Barium studies - a radio-opaque dye administered as a drink or an enema which shows up the outline of the bowel on xray

Blood tests - to check for inflammatory markers, an allergy to gluten or a food intolerance.

Although a cause has not been established, there are factors that may play a part in initiating the disease. In 10 - 20% of cases, gastro-enteritis is cited which may be due to food poisoning, particularly after a holiday abroad. About half of all people will date the start of their symptoms to a major life event such as a change of house or job, or a bereavement.

Possible Triggers

IBS can affect people in different ways and what may worsen the condition in one person may in fact ease the symptoms for another. For many people, it is a case of trial and error and may take several months to detect the triggers.

A common trigger is stress - not always an easy situation to avoid in this day and age.
Saturated fat may also be a factor as fat stimulates contractions in the intestine, causing cramps.
Caffeine is another bowel stimulant which is found in coffee, tea, cola and chocolate.
Alcohol irritates the bowel and beer, being quite gaseous, may cause bloating.
Fizzy soft drinks will have the same effect.
Wheat may cause a problem, especially if an allergy or intolerance is identified.
Some people are found to have a lactose intolerance due to a low level of the enzyme lactase in the body which is necessary to digest milk or dairy products.
Fructose found in fruit juice can also be difficult for some people to digest, therefore aggravating their symptoms.
Spicy foods are another common trigger, by irritating the lining of the intestine.

Another factor which is not so well known about is an overgrowth of yeasts in the intestine called candidiasis. If the person has had antibiotics, this may cause an imbalance of good bacteria in the gut, so by addressing this problem, the symptoms may disappear. A nutritionist should be able to help and also identify any allergies. Also, it has been found that some people experience symptoms after ingesting fluoride, either through fluoridated water, swallowing fluoride toothpaste or drinking tea, which has a high fluoride content.


Up to 50% of patients who attend the Gastro-Enterology clinic are diagnosed with IBS. Medication often includes an anti-spasmodic drug such as Buscopan or a supplement such as Fybogel to add bulk to the stool to prevent constipation. For those whose symptoms include diarrhoea, a drug such as Loperamide may be prescribed. Patients may also be referred to a dietician to discuss dietary options that may help to control IBS.

Helpful Tips

Apart from avoiding the common triggers mentioned earlier, here are some suggestions that may also help:

1) Keep a food diary for 2 - 4 weeks to help identify any triggers.
2) Have a Food Intolerance Indicator Test to check if you have the intolerance marker IgG in your blood.
2) Drink 2 litres of water a day (unfluoridated)
3) Drink 3 or more cups of peppermint tea each day. Peppermint soothes the entire digestive tract.
4) Eat plenty of foods containing fibre as it helps to prevent constipation.
5) Eat small meals more often to lessen the load on your digestive system
6) Always chew your food well and eat slowly to aid digestion.
7) Limit gas-producing foods such as beans, cabbage and brussels sprouts.
8) Take a probiotic supplement with a variety of beneficial bacteria strains such as lactobacillus acidophillus and bifidus
9) Exercise for 30 minutes at least 3 times a week as this aids bowel function.

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Disclaimer: The information in this article should not be regarded as medical advice.  If you are receiving medical treatment or taking prescribed medication, you are advised to consult your GP or health practitioner before making any changes to your diet or lifestyle.