Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is considered to be the most common disorder of the gastrointestinal system. Twice as many women as men are affected, and it usually starts in early adulthood. Although the condition is painful and disruptive to your daily life, it does not lead to serious disease.
Irritable bowel syndrome is characterised by digestive symptoms such as those below, particularly when their presence is related to stress, depression or anxiety:
- Altered bowel habits
- Constipation and/or diarrhoea
- Cramping pain in the bowel area (i.e. lower abdomen)
- Abnormal bowel movements (e.g. watery stools, food particles visible in stools)
- Presence of blood or mucus in the stool
- Symptoms generally, but not always, occur soon after eating or drinking
As part of the digestive process, the intestines move food through the intestinal tract by muscular bowel contractions called peristalsis. Irritable bowel syndrome occurs when peristalsis develops inconsistencies such as abnormal muscle movement or spasm of the lower part of the colon.
Sometimes the spasm delays the bowel movement, causing constipation. At other times it may lead to more rapid passage of the bowel movement, resulting in diarrhoea, or smaller stools, which are less well-formed. It is common for sufferers to need to empty their bowels more frequently than normal, and to feel that their bowel movement is incomplete.
Although the causes of IBS are not yet fully understood, the role of the nervous system as one of the controlling areas of bowel muscle movement is believed to be a key factor. Stress, anxiety and depression are common triggers of attacks in IBS patients.
Other factors that have a role are food allergies, high-fat diets, overeating, binge-eating, lactose intolerance, eating too quickly and smoking. Aspirin and sugar substitutes, including aspartame, are common food triggers.
- The “good” bacteria that inhabit the bowel have a valuable role to play in maintaining regularity; a probiotic supplement containing Acidophilus and Bifidus is recommended for all sufferers of IBS, regardless of whether experiencing diarrhoea, constipation, or both.
- Magnesium relieves spasmodic and cramping pain in the bowel and is also valuable to help your body cope in times of physical and mental stress.
- Slippery elm powder particularly when combined with peppermint oil soothes the inflamed bowel wall; taken in small quantities (approximately two teaspoons mixed in water before each meal) it lubricates the stool to relieve constipation, and larger quantities (approximately one dessertspoon mixed in water or stirred into grated apple) to bind diarrhoea.
- B group vitamins help the body to cope in times of physical and emotional stress; reducing the impact of stress may help to reduce the occurrence of IBS symptoms.
Regular exercise helps your body to cope with stress and anxiety by stimulating the brain to release “feel good” chemicals called endorphins.
Develop new stress management techniques such as meditation and relaxation. Your health care professional can also refer you to specialists in this area.
Ensure you drink 6-8 glasses of water each day. Water replaces the extra fluid lost if you are experiencing diarrhoea, and is essential for the lubrication of the stool if you are experiencing constipation.
Keep a symptom diary to assist you in pinpointing foods or lifestyle practices which are triggers for your IBS symptoms. Remember that IBS is a changeable disease, and watch for a regular response over several occasions before excluding a particular food from your diet. Try to avoid fatty foods, alcohol, coffee (including decaffeinated), spicy foods, sugar and artificial sweeteners which are amongst the most common triggers of IBS symptoms.
Talk with your health care professional about whether a fibre supplement is suitable for you. Remember that it is common for symptoms such as bloating to temporarily worsen as your body gets used to the increased fibre.
Prevent or reduce IBS attacks by adding regular relaxation sessions such as meditation, massage or yoga to your lifestyle.
Remember to chew your food slowly and thoroughly before swallowing it. Your saliva contains enzymes that start the digestion of your food before it even reaches your stomach. Additionally, the chewing action sends a message to your stomach that food is on the way, allowing it time to start producing the necessary digestive acids.
Eating too quickly, or whilst under stress, decreases the amount of time and energy your body has to devote to digestion.
Consult you health care professional if:
- There is blood or mucus in your stools, on the toilet paper or in the toilet bowl when you pass a bowel motion.
- You have symptoms of IBS in combination with a fever, or unexpected weight loss.