Coping with irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) causes misery for million of people in the UK and, though it poses no serious threat to a sufferer's health, it can have a serious impact on their quality of life.

Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms
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According to the NHS, it is estimated that 10 to 20 per cent of people in England suffer from IBS. Symptoms of the condition vary greatly from mild to severe and it almost twice as common in women than in men. Though there is no cure, it is possible to treat and, with medication and changes to diet and lifestyle, it is often very manageable.

The exact cause of IBS is as yet unknown but experts believe there are three factors that may contribute to the bowel disruption that causes the symptoms.

Changes in gastrointestinal motility (the body's ability to move food through the digestive system), where the process known as peristalsis is disrupted so that food moves either to quickly or too slowly through the system; visceral hyperalgesia, an increased sensitivity to pain in the digestive tract; and psychological factors, such as stress or anxiety, are all thought to result in IBS.

IBS most commonly results in symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhoea or constipation (or both alternately), excessive wind, an urgent need to go to the toilet, and a bloated feeling in the stomach. Many sufferers feel that they have not fully emptied their bowel after a visit to the toilet. Some also suffer with lower back pain, joint pain, tiredness, nausea, burping and headaches.

These symptoms are usually worse after eating and most sufferers will experience a flare-up lasting between two and four days, after which the pain will begin to subside.

Given the nature of the symptoms, many experience embarrassment over the condition and this in turn can lead to depression and anxiety.

It is often the case that certain foods and drinks trigger the symptoms - alcohol, caffeine, fried food, fizzy drinks and processed snacks like crisps or biscuits, are common triggers and stress is also regularly cited as the reason for a flare-up. But if you think you may have found the food group that brings on the symptoms, it is important to consult a doctor or dietician before you begin an exclusion diet.

If you believe you may be suffering with IBS, keeping a food diary can be helpful. By taking note of your daily diet, it may be possible to identify the foods that trigger a flare-up and thereby allow you to manage the condition successfully.

However, if your experience a repeated change in bowel habits, persistent abdominal pain or cramping, it is advisable to visit your GP. IBS is a common complaint but it is essential that such symptoms are investigated in case they point to an allergy, infection or over-active thyroid gland.

If IBS is diagnosed, however, the NHS advises that changes in your diet may help to control the symptoms. Regular meals are a good idea, while skipping breakfast, lunch or dinner is not, and avoid rushing your food where possible.

Reducing your intake of caffeine, alcohol, fizzy drinks and "resistant starch" (often found in processed foods) may also help while eight cups of water or another non-caffeinated drink is recommended and fresh fruit should be limited to three portions a day. Some sufferers find that probiotics relieve the symptoms and these are readily available in supermarket.

Since stress can also trigger the symptoms of IBS, relaxation techniques such as meditation, and regular exercise may help to reduce your anxiety levels and thereby make the symptoms less frequent or severe.

However, there are also a number of medications available via prescription so, if your symptoms persist even after changes to your diet and lifestyle, you should discuss the options with your GP.