With one in five of us suffering from IBS, we tackle the taboo subject by asking dietician Jo Travers for her advice on the symptoms and treatments
A massive 20% of us will experience IBS in our lives, with some studies finding that women are twice as likely to suffer as men. And yet it’s a subject that a lot of us feel uncomfortable talking about. With the causes still relatively unknown – stress can be a significant factor – the symptoms, diagnosis and management of IBS can be tricky to navigate.
What is IBS?
IBS stands for irritable bowel syndrome. It seems to cause the bowel to become much more sensitive.
What causes it?
No one really knows what causes IBS, although lots of people find it is triggered or made worse when they are stressed or anxious. This may be because of alterations in the nerve connections between the brain and the gut caused by stress. The increased sensitivity in the bowel may also make a mild digestive signal feel like a major one, so a slight muscle contraction, which should feel like a twitch, may actually feel really painful.
What are the symptoms that I should I look out for?
The symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, constipation, bloating and wind. But not everyone with IBS gets all these symptoms. In fact, it is often classified as either IBS-D (IBS with diarrhoea) or IBS-C (with constipation), although a person may have both.
What should I do if I think I might have IBS?
How can you treat it?
There is no cure for IBS but we can treat it through a combination of changes to diet and lifestyle, and sometimes psychological therapy like stress management techniques. There are also some medications that can help some of the symptoms such as antispasmodics, which can help with abdominal pain, or anti-diarrheal agents.
How do you manage the condition?
IBS is a very individual condition and it’s rare that two people will experience the same triggers and symptoms. Managing your IBS is also very individual and it may take some experimenting to understand what works for you. However, most people find that symptoms improve if they have meals at regular intervals, eat slowly and sit down at a table rather than eating on the go. Increasing physical activity, reducing stress and taking the time to relax can also be very helpful.
What are probiotics and can they help ease the symptoms?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that populate the gut with good bacteria and can improve digestive health. Some people with IBS find that their symptoms improve after taking a probiotic, but not all probiotics are equal. It is worth getting a good quality one with several different types of bacteria, and different strains may help with different symptoms. You need to take a probiotic for at least four weeks to know if it will have an effect.
Are there any foods that make IBS worse?
Caffeine, sweeteners such as sorbitol, fizzy drinks, alcohol and fatty foods can make symptoms worse. The British Dietetic Association has an IBS fact sheet with more information depending on your symptoms.
Lowering your intake of fermentable carbohydrates (including sugary foods such as cakes and soft drinks, but also bread, crackers and cereals) may also help. This is known as a low-FODMAP diet and can be an effective treatment. Get support from a registered dietitian before following this diet, as you shouldn’t cut out whole food groups without seeing a professional. Your GP may be able to refer you to a dietitian or you can find a private dietician.
Which foods can help?
People with bloating, wind and constipation may find it helpful to have an oat-based breakfast, or you could try adding 1 tbsp linseeds (aka flaxseeds) a day to your diet. You should also gradually increase fibre from wholegrains and vegetables and drink plenty of water – at least eight glasses a day.
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