Gut reaction

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

April marks IBS Awareness Month which presents a good opportunity to initiate a proper conversation about the syndrome and to debunk some of the popular myths.

For starters, it’s estimated that one in five people in the UK suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome so it’s really pretty common. IBS often leaves you 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 like several other health complaints, including more serious issues such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.

There’s a real stigma around this condition, largely owing to the idea that problems of the gut are something to be ashamed of. This should not be the case, which is why we want to blast through the taboo and generate real understanding on what it’s like to deal with IBS daily.

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 which usually improves the situation.

Should I take medication?

First visit your GP who will document your symptoms and examine you to make sure you are suffering from IBS and not something more ‘sinister’. They can then decide on medication or a change of diet and lifestyle – or a combination of both.

Will exercise ease my IBS or make it worse?

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 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 diet, exercise and health advice already covered.