Irritable bowel syndrome, or ‘IBS’, is an unpleasant, yet surprisingly common, disorder that can severely disrupt an individual’s life.
As with any problem, psychological or physical, it is important first to understand what it is. Having found out all you can about its nature and causes you can begin to seek out treatments.
What is IBS?
IBS is a disorder of the gut, but it is a functional disorder, meaning there is nothing wrong with the structure of the gut, merely with the way it is functioning. In essence IBS is a result of over activity in the gut. However, if you begin to suffer intense pain that will not go away, or if you discover blood in your stool, see a medical doctor as soon as possible. IBS can be difficult to diagnose, partly because the symptoms vary from person to person. Some people experience diarrhea, others constipation. Some excrete a stool that is abnormally soft and thin, while others find their stool becomes small, hard and pellet shaped. Often, the IBS sufferer still feels bloated and unrelieved after going to the toilet. Most experience mild pain, excessive wind and a sense of bloating.
The first step should be a visit to a medical doctor. A simple blood test will reveal whether you have mistaken something else for IBS, such as celiac disease, colitis, gut infections or even ulcers. Sometimes the early stages of bowel cancer can be mistaken for IBS.
Treatment naturally depends on the causes. The three most common are infection, food intolerance and emotional disturbance. Infections of the gut seem to sensitize it and can lead to IBS, which often persists even after the infection has cleared. Food intolerance can also lie at the root of IBS. Many people go through life unaware that they possess a low-level wheat or lactose intolerance. More generally, a poor diet composed of junk food and sugary snacks can also cause IBS. The majority suffer from this disorder because of stress, particularly when the stress is prolonged.
If you believe your IBS is the result of a recent gut infection, see your doctor. If you are sure your IBS has a dietary cause, it may be worth visiting a dietician. Wheat and dairy products are common culprits and many people are unaware of their intolerance to such things. It may be worth trying an exclusion diet. These can be tedious and unproductive, but if they work they can save you a lifetime of discomfort. Try eating nothing but vegetables, rice and fruit for a week, and then gradually add in wheat, dairy, sugar, alcohol, caffeine and so on to see if any of them makes a difference. Water is also important as it helps ease the passage of food along the gut.
If your IBS has been caused by stress and anxiety you must do all you can to reduce them. People who leave a stressful and exhausting job, for example, often report the disappearance of their IBS. If it is impossible to remove the immediate cause of stress, you can at least try to soothe and calm your body. Try taking long, hot baths, getting plenty of exercise and exploring yoga and meditation. Anything that reduces stress and anxiety will also ease the symptoms of IBS.