Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects the large intestine (colon). It occurs when the bowel overreacts to a mild stimulus – such as eating or the presence of gas – by going into spasm (hence why it is also known as spastic colon). It is characterised by cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation.
IBS is extremely common, affecting as many as one in five of the population. It is most common in people in their 20’s and 30’s and the condition affects more women than men.
Symptoms of IBS
The signs and symptoms of IBS can vary widely from person to person and often resemble those of other diseases. Among the most common are:
- Abdominal pain or cramping (pain may be relieved following a bowel movement)
- Unusual bowel movements – intermittent diarrhoea, constipation, or alternating bouts of both
- A bloated feeling
- Cramping or pains in the stomach region
- Mucus in the stool
- Occasionally heartburn, nausea and vomiting also occur
It’s important to see a doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms as they may be indicative of a more serious condition:
- Rectal bleeding
- Abdominal pain that progresses or occurs at night
- Weight loss
For most people, IBS is a chronic condition, although there will likely be times when the signs and symptoms are worse and times when they improve or even disappear completely.
Causes of IBS
While the symptoms of IBS may be clear, it is still not known exactly why some people develop the disorder. It can sometimes develop after a gastrointestinal infection, and there are also a number of other factors that may set it off – including dietary, psychological, hormonal and genetic factors. Stress and depression are known to contribute to flare-ups.
Tips and Treatment for IBS
Because the causes of IBS are still not clear, treatment will normally focus on the relief of symptoms. In most cases, mild signs and symptoms can successfully be controlled by learning to manage stress and making changes to diet and lifestyle. Dietary changes include:
- Eliminating high-gas foods such as carbonated beverages, vegetables like cabbage, broccoli & cauliflower, and raw fruits.
- Eliminating gluten – research shows that some people with IBS report improvement in diarrhoea symptoms if they stop eating gluten.
- Eliminating FODMAPs – some people are sensitive to certain types of carbohydrates known as FODMAPs. FODMAPs are found in certain grains, vegetables, fruits and dairy products. You may be able to get relief from your IBS symptoms on a strict low FODMAP diet and then reintroduce foods one at time.
If your problems are moderate or severe, you may need more than lifestyle changes. In this instance your doctor may suggest medication.