April is the IBS Awareness Month

This is the first in a series of four articles written by our Hormone Health Associate, Nigel Denby on the challenges of IBS.

What is Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

There is a greater awareness of what IBS is nowadays and many articles are written on the subject but there remains a lack of clarity about what causes IBS and what the symptoms are. This lack of clarity is somewhat understandable given that symptoms of IBS vary from one person to another, and diagnosis is more of a process of elimination of other possible causes of the symptoms.

IBS is a chronic functional gastrointestinal disorder, and it is estimated that between 10% and 20% of the population suffer from IBS so if you worry that you may be affected, read on to understand more about the symptoms and potential treatments.

What are the common symptoms?

Symptoms differ between individuals but tend to include bloating, abdominal pain and changes in bowel movements. Some patients may experience diarrhoea, others constipation and some people find their symptoms change from one to the other. You may also experience nausea, backache, urgency, incomplete evacuation and other bladder symptoms.

How is IBS diagnosed?

There is no specific test for IBS and your doctor will diagnose the condition by eliminating other possible health conditions, for example, coeliac disease. Your doctor will want to run tests that may include blood and stool samples.

Causes of IBS

There is no specific cause of IBS, and this is why diagnosis is not simple but there are links between symptoms and potential causes. We all have trillions of gut bacteria, and it is believed that bacteria in our gut (our gut microbiome) is influential to our physical health and especially our digestive health.  The connection between our brains and our gut is crucial to ensure our digestive system works correctly.

The bacteria in our gut can be affected by several factors including our diet, any medication we are taking such as antibiotics and the levels of stress we experience. If our gut bacteria are adversely affected, then our physical health may suffer.

There may ale be a possibility that genetics play a part, and you may be more likely to suffer from IBS if other members of your family have experienced the condition.

Treatment of IBS

There is no known cure or treatment for IBS, but the symptoms can generally be alleviated by careful management mainly through lifestyle changes.

In the UK, doctors will follow the NICE guidelines for the treatment of IBS which recommend regular meals, mindful, slow eating plenty of fluids and careful monitoring of fibre intake taking care to balance insoluble and soluble fibre.

Your doctor may also recommend taking probiotics as these can help restore the gut bacteria, particularly the variety of bacteria leading to improved gut health. Some probiotics are better than others though and you are recommended to try them for at least four weeks to allow your gut time to benefit.

You may also hear about the benefits of following a low FODMAP diet as a method to alleviate IBS symptoms. FODMAP is an abbreviation for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols.  A low FODMAP diet is an investigation through a process of elimination to determine which changes to your diet improve your symptoms. You will need to eliminate FODMAPs for a short period and then you will reintroduce the FODMAPS one by one, monitoring the return of symptoms. This process will allow you to identify which FODMAPS your body can tolerate, and which need to be excluded. It is really important to understand that a low FODMAP diet is a short-term initiative as eliminating foods from your diet needs to be managed very carefully. You may need the support of a qualified, registered dietician or registered nutritionist to support you as this can be a complex area.

Summary

If you think you may be suffering from IBS, you should make an appointment to discuss your symptoms with your GP or a registered dietician/ nutritionist who will be able to help you diagnose your symptoms and support you with a treatment plan.

Many people are deterred from seeking help as they fear diagnosis is not simple and treatment is complex, but IBS research is ever evolving, and more is known about the condition than ever before.

Article written by Nigel Denby, BSc Hons, RD Registered Dietitian

@menopause_dietitian
Founder of www.harleystathome.com