The truth about IBS

Ir­ri­ta­ble Bowel Syn­drome symp­toms can be hard to stom­ach. LIZ CON­NOR speaks to health ex­pert Dr Ann Robin­son to find out more about the con­di­tion

The Chronicle - - Health & Lifestyle -

SUF­FER­ERS of ir­ri­ta­ble bowel syn­drome (IBS) will tell you that the symp­toms can be painful and of­ten em­bar­rass­ing to live with. The tell­tale bloat­ing, cramps and fre­quent toi­let trips can oc­cur at any time, wreak­ing havoc on the di­ges­tive sys­tem.

Thou­sands of peo­ple in the UK have been di­ag­nosed with this com­mon di­ges­tive or­der, and re­searchers be­lieve as many as two in 10 peo­ple are cur­rently liv­ing with IBS.

Not sure ex­actly what it is or how to tackle the symp­toms? Dr Ann Robin­son, lead GP at Bupa Health Clin­ics, re­veals more about the causes, warn­ing signs and treat­ments...


IBS af­fects 10-15% of the world­wide pop­u­la­tion, but be­cause it isn’t the type of topic many peo­ple feel com­fort­able dis­cussing, lots of us are still con­fused about what it is and why we get it.

“Ir­ri­ta­ble Bowel Syn­drome is a long-term con­di­tion that af­fects your di­ges­tive sys­tem,” ex­plains Dr Robin­son. “It causes pain or dis­com­fort in your tummy, and vary­ing changes in your bowel habits.”

Dr Robin­son says It can de­velop at any age, but the first symp­toms usu­ally start ap­pear­ing be­tween the ages of 20 and 30 years old. “Women are twice as likely to get it as men,” she adds.


THERE are a num­ber of tell­tale un­pleas­ant signs of IBS that should prompt you to visit your GP. “Some of the most com­mon symp­toms in­clude bloat­ing, wind or dis­com­fort in your ab­domen, which can of­ten be felt on the left-hand side,” says Robin­son. “This dis­com­fort can vary from a sud­den sharp pain to a con­stant dull ache, and the pain may ease af­ter go­ing to the toi­let. For some, it may also get worse af­ter eat­ing.”

Er­ratic changes to your bowel move­ment is an­other clue that some­thing isn’t right in your gut. “Your stool may vary in con­sis­tency and can al­ter­nate be­tween con­sti­pa­tion and di­ar­rhoea,” says Dr Robin­son, adding: “Some­times you may need to go to the toi­let ur­gently, and at other times you may have prob­lems go­ing.”

Many suf­fer­ers de­scribe ac­cel­er­ated bowel tran­sit as a sig­nif­i­cant source of stress, with the fear of a sud­den on­set of di­ar­rhoea caus­ing anx­i­ety about pub­lic out­ings.

“IBS symp­toms can come and go; you may not have any symp­toms for months and then get a flare-up,” says Dr Robin­son. “It’s a good idea to keep a symp­tom di­ary and share it with your GP.” She says that you should note down what foods you have eaten, how you are feel­ing at the time of a flare-up, as well as the symp­toms you are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing.

To­gether with your GP, you can then use the find­ings to de­ter­mine the foods and emo­tions that might trig­ger the symp­toms, and de­cide which treat­ment is right for you.


“IT’S still un­clear why some peo­ple de­velop IBS, but it’s thought that it may be caused by a va­ri­ety of fac­tors,” says Dr Robin­son. In some cases, it could all be down to a mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the brain and the in­testi­nal tract. “This can cause you to have ab­nor­mal mus­cle con­trac­tion or spasms, which of­ten causes the cramp­ing pain,” she ex­plains. “The spasms may speed the pas­sage of stool, caus­ing di­ar­rhoea, or they may slow it down, caus­ing con­sti­pa­tion.”

IBS can also be caused by an in­tol­er­ance to cer­tain foods, par­tic­u­larly those high in FODMAPS – “tiny car­bo­hy­drates found in foods such as wheat and beans, that the body finds dif­fi­cult to break down”.

Dr Robin­son notes that ir­ri­ta­tion to the bowel or di­ges­tive sys­tem – per­haps af­ter an in­fec­tion such as gas­troen­teri­tis or food poi­son­ing – could also trig­ger the symp­toms, while some re­searchers be­lieve IBS may be ge­netic.

“You may find your symp­toms get worse af­ter be­ing stressed, af­ter eat­ing cer­tain foods or if you’re tak­ing cer­tain an­tibi­otics,” she adds.

“Again, it’s a good idea to make a note of these things to help fig­ure out what’s con­tribut­ing to your IBS flare-ups.”


IF you’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing any­thing un­usual with your stom­ach or bowel move­ments, get it checked out by your doc­tor. “IBS is usu­ally di­ag­nosed by tak­ing a de­tailed his­tory of your symp­toms.” says Dr Robin­son.

“It can’t be con­firmed with a test, how­ever, your GP may sug­gest you have some blood tests, pro­vide stool sam­ples and pos­si­bly a colonoscopy to rule out any other se­ri­ous con­di­tions.”


UN­FOR­TU­NATELY, there is no cure for IBS, how­ever, changes to your diet and life­style may help ease the un­com­fort­able symp­toms.

“Ev­ery­one is dif­fer­ent and cer­tain foods that will af­fect one per­son may not af­fect an­other,” says Dr Robin­son. “How­ever, gen­er­ally, I’d rec­om­mend you try eat­ing reg­u­lar meals pre­pared from fresh pro­duce, and don’t rush when you’re eat­ing; stay hy­drated and aim to have at least eight cups of fluid a day.”

Avoid­ing fatty, pro­cessed or re­heated foods might help to reg­u­late your bowel move­ments, and you should also limit the amount of caf­feine you have.

“If stress trig­gers your IBS, con­sider re­lax­ation tech­niques such as med­i­ta­tion or yoga,” says Robin­son. “Ex­er­cise can also help re­duce flare-ups too.”

If you find that diet and life­style changes are not help­ing man­age your IBS, there are med­i­ca­tions that can help.

“These vary de­pend­ing on your symp­toms,” notes Robin­son, “so talk to your phar­ma­cist or GP be­fore tak­ing them.”

The dis­com­fort of IBS can strike at any time

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