Do I have Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (or IBS) is a chronic gastrointestinal problem, which leads to unusual sensitivity and muscle activity.
It is very common, afflicts mainly women and tends to develop before the age of 35.
It is also often referred to as spastic colon, spastic colitis, mucous colitis or nervous stomach. However, IBS should not be mistaken for inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs), such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. IBS is a functional problem, whereby the operation of the bowels may be abnormal, but no structural problems are present.
How the bowel works
It can be helpful to understand the role of the intestine (bowel), in better understanding IBS.
The intestine stretches from an opening in the stomach to the anus (rear end). It plays a major role in digestion, a process in which food is broken down and absorbed (together with water) into the bloodstream. The small intestine absorbs nutrients, whilst the large intestine assimilates moisture from the matter that is leftover and excretes the waste from the anus.
So, partly digested foodstuff normally leaves the stomach and passes into the small intestine and then into the large intestine. The large intestine helps food to flow through with light squeezing motions. However, with IBS, it is believed that the intestines squeeze too hard or not hard enough and cause food to move too quickly or too sluggishly through the gastrointestinal tract.
Types of IBS
As such, there are broadly two types of IBS:
1. In some instances, material inside the bowel doesn’t progress rapidly enough and an excess of fluid is absorbed, leading to constipation – this is called IBS-C.
2. In other cases, the material moves too quickly and the colon doesn’t take up enough liquid, which leads to diarrhoea – this is called IBS-D.
Those that have problems with IBS seldom openly discuss it. However, studies suggest its likely prevalence in the United Kingdom to be around 17% of the population.
Unfortunately, doctors do not tend to understand why or how IBS comes about. Furthermore, quite a few doctors feel that the complaint doesn’t really exist and is psychosomatic in origin. Having said that, this opinion is now generally rejected by the natural health fraternity. Moreover, it is the most common condition diagnosed by gastroenterologists and one of the most common disorders seen by primary care physicians.
The specific cause, or causes, of IBS are uncertain, but the following factors are likely to contribute to the onset of this condition:
- insufficient intake of dietary fibre
- hypersensitivity to specific hormones
- food allergies and sensitivities (e.g. to gluten)
- problems with the way signals are sent between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract
- poor diet (including diets high in sugar and/or fat)
- micro-organisms in the gut (including bacteria and parasites)
- coeliac disease
- and medications.
What is a syndrome?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is not classified as a disease. The term “syndrome” may sound alarming, but it’s actually just a broad term used by doctors to describe a group of symptoms.
Although IBS certainly isn’t fatal, its symptoms can drastically impact on quality of life and may even be debilitating.
Certainly, symptoms and severity vary from one person to another (and might change over time). For some, IBS is a chronic (continuous) disorder that characterises daily living. For others, it is a periodic unwelcome visitor. Everybody suffers from an occasional bowel disturbance, but for anyone with IBS, the symptoms are more acute or arise more often.
Whether constant or intermittent, IBS is most often known to cause a mixture of any of the following symptoms: abdominal pain, acid reflux, wind, bloating, fullness, cramping pains, fatigue, severe headaches, passage of mucous, urgency or a a sense of unfinished bowel movements and a change in bowel habits (i.e. constipation and/or diarrhoea).
Clearly, a number of these symptoms are common in other conditions and are rather ambiguous. This explains the frequent difficulty in obtaining a certain diagnosis. More uncommon symptoms include a feeling of sickness and throwing up.
Living with IBS
Unfortunately, there isn’t any known cure for IBS, but it appears that its symptoms can be managed in many different ways. For instance, dietary and lifestyle changes and supporting health supplements. Many people find that high-strength, multi-strain probiotics help with symptoms, along with plant-derived digestive enzymes and high quality dietary fibre.
In contrast, having fatty, processed foods can lead to a tummy upset in virtually anybody. Nonetheless, particular foods and drinks (like greasy burgers, sugar, chocolate, milk products, caffeine and alcohol) are believed to especially aggravate the symptoms of IBS, by (amongst other things) increasing the body’s output of digestive gases and creating an acidic environment.
Tension is also believed to increase the motility (the rhythmic contractions) of the intestine that propels food through the gastrointestinal tract and causes abdominal pain and irregular bowel functions.
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