What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is one of those conditions that most people have heard of, if not experienced themselves.
It is very common, with up to 1 in 5 people in the UK developing IBS at some stage in their life. It can affect anyone at any age, but most commonly first develops in teenagers and young adults, and women are affected more often than men.
While viewed with some skepticism by many GPs in the past, more and more IBS is being recognised as a genuine condition - not least because the effects of modern day living on the digestive system (including stress, parasites, toxic chemicals, medication, additives, preservatives, contaminants and allergens etc) is slowly becoming better understood.
Further, it is now one of the most common conditions seen by primary care physicians and diagnosed by gastroenterologists.
One of the reasons for the common lack of understanding around this condition is the fact that it covers a wide range of, what are often, quite broad symptoms. It is not considered to be a disease of itself; instead the term "irritable bowel syndrome" is used to describe a collection of symptoms.
For example, IBS is generally used to describe a combination of:
- intermittent diarrhoea or constipation
- a recurring feeling of urgency to go to the loo
- stomach pain after eating
- excessive wind
- and/or indigestion.
Without appropriate dietary and lifestyle changes, IBS tends to be a chronic gastrointestinal disorder, which results in unusual sensitivity and muscle activity. In fact, it was previously widely referred to as "spastic colon" or "nervous stomach".
However, it is important to differentiate IBS from inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs), such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. IBS is a functional disorder, where the bowels may be working abnormally, but no structural abnormalities exist. With an IBD, the gastrointestinal tract is inflamed and often ulcerated.
What causes irritable bowel syndrome?
There are many possible contributory causes to one or more of the symptoms that can make up an individual's experience of irritable bowel syndrome. They include everything from food allergies, intolerances and poor diet, to gut inflammation, dysbiosis (an imbalance of good and bad bacteria), stress, overuse of medication (particularly antibiotics), gut infection (including bacterial, yeast and parasitic overgrowth) and toxic overload.
However, in trying to understand how IBS might come about, it is helpful to first have an understanding of how the intestines (bowels) work in the body.
They stretch from an opening in the stomach right down to the anus and play a major role in the digestive process - the small intestine absorbs nutrients from the food that is broken down, while the large intestine absorbs water from the matter that is left over and eliminates the waste from the body.
When the gastrointestinal tract is functioning well, digested food moves through the intestines quickly and efficiently with the help of gentle squeezing motions (called peristalsis). However, with IBS, it is thought that the intestines either squeeze too hard or not hard enough, and therefore cause food to move too fast or too slowly through the digestive system. This is why some individuals with IBS experience intermittent diarrhoea or constipation.
IBS stomach pain, one of the main symptoms, is also related to the way the bowels move. The discomfort may begin when the frequency or consistency of bowel movements changes, and there may be less discomfort after having a bowel movement. Bloating can also contribute to the discomfort.
Coping with Irritable bowel syndrome
Everyone experiences the occasional bowel disturbance for one reason or another, but for those with irritable bowel syndrome the symptoms are more severe or occur more often. Although IBS is not life-threatening, it can certainly impact a person's quality of life quite significantly.
Of course, symptoms and severity vary from person to person, and can change over time. For some, IBS is a chronic disorder that has a major influence on daily living. For others, flare-ups occur just periodically.
However, one of the easiest and most effective ways to cope with IBS and help alleviate symptoms is to address certain aspects of your lifestyle which may be aggravating them. For instance, stopping smoking, increasing your level of physical activity, reducing your stress levels and, perhaps most importantly, improving your diet.
"Changing your diet to address IBS symptoms (with the guidance of a doctor or nutritionist, who can help you to determine relevant factors if appropriate), can be highly beneficial for sufferers"
Irritable Bowel Syndrome diet
Changing your diet to address IBS symptoms (with the guidance of a doctor or nutritionist, who can help you to determine relevant factors if appropriate), can be highly beneficial for sufferers.
For example, eating high-fat, high-sugar and refined foods could lead to a stomach upset in anyone. However, certain foods and drinks (like fast-food, ready-meals, sugar, chocolate, dairy products, caffeine and alcohol) are thought to aggravate the symptoms of IBS. For instance, by:
- making the body more acidic, which can in turn lead to inflammation
- increasing the body’s production of digestive gases
- diminishing the number of friendly bacteria in the gut, making the body more vulnerable to harmful bacteria, yeasts, parasites and other micro-organisms
- generally placing a strain on the digestive system and diminishing enzyme reserves.
In contrast, an alkalising diet, packed with enzyme-rich vegetables, fruit, green leafy plants, lean sources of protein and probiotic foods, can help to alleviate symptoms through their cleansing and protective nutrients. In particular:
- essential fats may help to calm gut inflammation
- the amino acid glutamine may help to support gut wall integrity
- antioxidants may help to detoxify and protect against free-radical damage
- high-quality, non-irritating sources of dietary fibre can help to support healthy digestion and bowel regularity
- friendly bacteria support overall gut health and a strong immune system
- and the right balance of minerals can help the muscles of the gut to work properly.
Many people suffering with IBS therefore choose to follow a pure diet of lightly cooked vegetables, fish, non-gluten grains, lentils, beans and ground seeds for healthy fats. Avoid any potential allergens, at least until symptoms improve.
You may also choose to supplement your diet with a high-quality multivitamin, multi-strain probiotic, plant-derived digestive enzymes, L-Glutamine, a balanced blend of Omega oils and food form vitamin C.
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