Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common gastrointestinal conditions in the UK, affecting an estimated 10-20% of the UK's population at any one time. This figure is thought to be even much higher than this because many people with the condition do not report their symptoms to their doctor and suffer in silence.
Scientists are still unsure exactly what causes the condition and with no definitive cure available much confusion still surrounds the condition. Here we look more closely at what is actually known about this often painful and debilitating syndrome and what you should do if you suspect you may be experiencing symptoms.
What are the symptoms of IBS?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is the term now given to a collection of symptoms relating to a disturbance of the
large bowel, also known as the colon. These symptoms may include:
- Abdominal pain or discomfort, often relieved by defecation
- Chronic diarrhoea or loose or watery stools
- Constipation or a combination of constipation and diarrhoea
- Off white mucus in stools
- A bloated or swollen abdomen
- A sensation of incomplete bowel movement
- For women, an increase in symptoms during menstrual cycles
- Excessive wind
- Continuous unease around the abdomen
- Urgency - a need to rush to the toilet
Other symptoms can also occur in different parts of the body. These include:
- Slight fever
- Arthritis and painful joints
- Blurred vision
- Mouth sores
- Poor appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weight loss
- Heavy sweating
- Heart palpitations
What causes IBS?
Despite much research scientists are still not clear exactly what causes the condition. When diagnostic tests
are carried out they do not reveal any clear abnormality and because of this the condition is known as a ‘functional disorder’ of the bowel. This means that it is associated with a disturbance of bowel function without any obvious cause
or change in structure. It is not a disease.
What is clear is that the nerves and muscles in the bowel tend to be extra sensitive in people with IBS. Excessive muscle contraction can occur if too much food is consumed, for example. The associated nerves in the bowel may also overreact, causing
cramping and severe pain when the bowl stretches.
Although IBS sufferers can experience immense pain the condition is not believed to permanently damage the colon or other sections of the digestive tract.
Despite the lack of one clear cause, it is now assumed that one or more of the following factors can be responsible for triggering IBS:
- A food allergy or intolerance
- A bacterial or viral infection of the digestive system
- Abnormal levels of serotonin in the digestive system
- A dysfunctional immune system
- Ineffective muscles in the colon
- Mild coeliac disease
How is IBS Diagnosed?
IBS should always be diagnosed by a qualified medical professional such as your GP because symptoms of the condition can be similar to other bowel diseases. Doctors can often confidently diagnose the condition without specific tests, simply by considering your symptoms and their pattern. Your doctor may well take into account any emotional tension in your life as the condition is often thought to be associated with stressful life events such as debt and family breakdowns.
Is there are cure for IBS?
There is no cure for IBS however there are a number of treatments available for the different symptoms of the condition. It is important that you seek advice from your GP for the best treatment for you as some drugs can make the condition worse.Drugs that may help target certain symptoms include:
- Antispasmodics – to relieve spasms and pain
- Drugs for diarrhoea and incontinence such as Imodium, Lomotil or Questran
- Laxatives for constipation such as Fybogel, Regulan, Celevac and Duphalac
- Low doses of anti-depressants for patients in a great deal of pain. Different types are more suitable for those with diarrhoea and those with constipation.
Other non-drug treatments include:
- Changes in diet. Many patients find this can help. Constipation may be relieved by a diet rich in fibre and a food intolerance by avoiding certain foods. Foods thought to make IBS worse include: milk products, fatty foods, chocolate, alcohol, caffeine, carbonated drinks and wheat, rye and barley. Your GP may be able to refer you to a dietician who can help you to change your diet while obtaining all the necessary nutrients you need.
- Talking therapies. A good deal of sufferers find drugs and changes in diet disappointing and are advised to try to tackle lifestyle or emotional problems that may be causing the colon to spasm. Your GP may be able to refer you to a counsellor or therapist who could be able to help you manage IBS by adjusting your lifestyle. A counsellor may suggest changes such as regular exercise and meditation.
Natural supplements for IBS relief
Many patients also turn to natural supplements to help them manage certain symptoms. There is a surprising range that may be able to help. Here we list the supplements most commonly advised for the condition.
- Acidophilus Plus: This probiotic provides an opportunity to ‘top up’ on the friendly bacteria that lives in our gut, that an increasing amount of evidence shows helps to protect our bodies. Levels are thought to dip during times of stress. Studies show that probiotics can be particularly useful in treating diarrhoea. Research published in 2002 showed that the L Casei and L. Acidophillus strains of bacteria helped to treat bacterial growth-related diarrhoea. The research from this study appeared to suggest that the probiotic worked best when used over a continuous period of time.
- Turmeric (Curcumin): Clinical studies have shown that thanks to certain active ingredients turmeric is a potent anti-inflammatory and so is thought to help reduce inflammation of the bowel.
- Senna: This supplement is a member of the pea family and contains a chemical compound called anthraquinone which acts as a laxative. As well as encouraging movement in the bowel senna may also help the intestines to retain more water so may help to produce much softer stools that are easier to pass.
- Vitamin B50 Complex: The B vitamins are manufactured in the small intestine and are often lost during diarrhoea. The B vitamins are particularly important for IBS sufferers, who often suffer from depression, as they help brain function.
- Vitamin E: This unique antioxidant contains a lubricating oil which is thought to prevent constipation and also has a soothing and calming effect on the bowel, helping to reduce inflammation.
- Fish Oils: More than 3,000 scientific studies now show that Omega-3 fish oils have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and are therefore thought to help reduce inflammation in the bowel.
- Flaxseed Oil: This natural lubricant is high in fibre and is thought to help prevent constipation.
- Peppermint Oil: This powerful aromatic herb has the ability to relax the muscles of the digestive tract. Although scientists do not understand how peppermint causes this effect its ability to decrease excessive contraction of the digestive tract provides relief from pain and discomfort. This soothing effect is well documented in research literature.
Other supplements you may like to consider for IBS include:
- Folic Acid: Many people with IBS are low in folic acid, which is thought to be very good for general bowel health.
- Vitamin B12: Many people with IBS are deficient in iron, which Vitamin B12 helps the body to absorb.
- Magnesium: Figures show that due to hectic lifestyles and poor eating habits many of us are lacking in magnesium which is an important mineral which helps our bodies to absorb calcium and potassium. Many scientists also believe it acts as a calming agent on the bowel and can have a laxative effect.
- Valerian: This herb is known for its ability for inducing sleep. One German study showed valerian both induced sleep and improved the quality of sleep. Many people with IBS suffer from broken sleep. Sleep can also be affected by stress, which is also associated with the condition.
- Zinc: Almost half the UK population is deficient in this mineral which is thought to be excellent for the immune system, which is compromised in many IBS sufferers
A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.