Gut issues

IBS is an increasingly common condition. What is it, what causes it – and what can you do, if anything, to beat it?

One in five people in the UK suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome which leaves them struggling with stomach cramps, bloating and a variety of digestive issues. An increasing common condition, it is still often misdiagnosed due to symptoms that are similar to a number of other health complaints, including more serious issues such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. In a follow-up to International IBS Awareness Month, we asked Dr Paul Wilson, a consultant gastroenterologist at Spire Parkway Hospital, Solihull, to answer some often-asked questions about IBS.

What is IBS and what are the symptoms?

IBS is a common, long-term condition of the digestive system and can affect some people more severely than others. Flare-ups can last a few days to months at a time and often occur during periods of stress or after eating certain foods. The main symptoms are alternating constipation and diarrhoea (although some individuals may have a predominance of either), abdominal pain or discomfort and bloating. IBS usually first develops when a person is in their twenties.

Are there any foods I can eat to prevent IBS?

Sticking to a healthy diet should help. Include fresh fruit and vegetables and cut down on processed food. Stopping smoking and reducing alcohol intake are two immediate steps sufferers can take which usually improves their situation.

Should I take medication?

First, visit your GP. He or she will document your symptoms and examine you to make sure you are suffering from IBS and not something more ‘sinister’. Once they have carried out an examination they will be in a position to decide whether medication or simply a change of diet and lifestyle would be the best path for you to take – it may well be a mixture of both.

Will exercise ease my IBS or make it worse?

In general, keeping fit should have a beneficial effect on your symptoms. Those with IBS are often less active than those without and increasing activity has been shown to help symptoms in some cases. Exercise also helps manage stress – a significant factor in worsening IBS symptoms – plus, it will also help keep your weight under control which, in turn, should ease symptoms.

Is it a curable?

IBS is a disturbance in the function of the bowel rather than there being a structural defect and symptoms often come and go over many years. Generally symptoms improve as individuals get older, but there is no cure as such. The key to management is symptom control, using the diet, exercise and health advice already covered.

The content of this article is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the professional medical advice of your doctor or other health care professional. Dr Paul Wilson is a consultant gastroenterologist at Spire Parkway Hospital, Solihull. Tel: 0121 704 5530