Millions of women in the UK are living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome – but what exactly is it and what’s the best way to manage the condition?
April is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Awareness Month, so we have collated the facts about this very common condition. Around one in five people in the UK will experience IBS at some point in their life and around two thirds of the people affected are women1. Despite the prevalence of IBS there is often confusion and embarrassment surrounding this condition. In this article, we’ll shed some light on IBS and suggest action you can take to manage your symptoms.
What is IBS?
IBS is a long-term condition of the digestive system which can be painful and difficult to live with if you don’t have your symptoms under control. The symptoms tend to flare up in bouts lasting anywhere from a few days to a few months1, and the symptoms themselves vary from person to person. However, the most common symptoms of IBS are:
- Stomach pains and cramping;
- Diarrhoea and/or constipation;
- Excessive wind
- A sudden urgent need to go to the toilet, and feeling that you have not fully emptied your bowels after going to the toilet;
- Passing mucus from your bottom2.
IBS can be uncomfortable but it does not pose a serious threat to your health and it does not affect your risk of developing cancer or any other bowel-related conditions1.
What causes IBS?
No specific issue has been identified or proven as the direct cause of IBS but most experts believe it is linked to digestive problems and having a sensitive gut. It is possible that in people with IBS the signals between the brain and the digestive system are disrupted, causing digestive issues. If food moves through your digestive system too quickly it can lead to diarrhoea and if it moves through too slowly it can cause constipation. Another potential underlying cause is oversensitivity to nerve signals from the digestive system – signals that in most people are barely noticeable, but cause stomach pain in people with IBS.
Bouts of IBS symptoms can be triggered by periods of stress or anxiety which interfere with your digestive system. Certain foods and drinks can also cause your symptoms to flare up, and common culprits include alcohol, fizzy drinks, caffeinated drinks, fatty food and processed snacks such as biscuits3.
You should see your GP if you have any of the IBS symptoms listed above. It may be useful to keep a food and drink diary, along with details of what symptoms you experience and when, in order to work out what is triggering these. Although there is no specific diagnostic test for IBS your GP will try and determine the cause of your symptoms and may recommend blood tests or a colonoscopy to rule out other conditions.
Living with IBS
Although IBS is not a treatable condition you can manage the symptoms by changing your diet and lifestyle.
An IBS-friendly diet can help you avoid flare ups of your symptoms, and the diet that works best for you will be based on avoiding your trigger foods. If you experience diarrhoea, then you may find it helpful to reduce your intake of food containing insoluble fibre such as wholegrain bread, cereals, nuts and seeds. If your IBS gives you constipation then you should consider increasing your consumption of soluble fibre, which is found in oats, fruit and root vegetables.
If you experience frequent or persistent bloating then you may want to try the FODMAP diet, which removes carbohydrates which aren’t easily broken down and absorbed by the gut. The FODMAP diet should only be followed under the guidance of a dietician. Following a dietary consultation, a clinical or consultant dietician can provide an appropriate nutritional programme and advice.
Many people find that their IBS symptoms are improved by eating regular meals and drinking plenty of water and other non-caffeinated drinks. You should restrict your caffeine consumption to around three cups of tea or coffee in a day4.
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