Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition of the digestive system that leads to bloating, altered bowel movements and/or abdominal cramping. IBS can be triggered by a number of different things depending on the person; however stress can amplify the condition. The severity of the condition also varies from person to person, and there is no way to diagnose or treat the condition.
Some of the more common signs of irritable bowel syndrome include:
- Abdominal pain or cramping that is often relieved by passing wind or faeces
- Alternating diarrhoea and constipation
- Abdominal bloating
- Mucus present in the stools
The certain factors that have been found to trigger IBS include:
- Previous gastrointestinal infection – an episode of gastroenteritis will often result in persistent bowel symptoms, long after the offending bacteria or virus has been eliminated. This often occurs when someone suffers from a bad bout of food poisoning or an overseas trip where the likelihood of food poisoning is somewhat higher. The cause of this triggering an attack of IBS is unknown, but may involve changes in the normal bacterial population of the bowel. Up to 25% of IBS may be due to this problem.
- Food intolerance – diet can be altered by impaired absorption of the sugar lactose (found in dairy and many processed foods) which is the most common diet trigger for IBS. Other sugars believed to trigger IBS are fructose (present in many types of syrup) and sorbitol.
- Diet – low fibre diets can amplify the constipation symptoms of IBS. Certain food may act as triggers, most commonly spicy or processed foods. It is important to decrease trigger foods from your diet in order to control the symptoms of your IBS.
- Emotional stress – strong emotions, such as anxiety or stress, can affect the nerves of the bowel in susceptible people.
- Medications – many drugs can lead to interruption of diet and bowel movements and can cause constipation or diarrhoea. These include drugs such as antibiotics, antacids and painkillers.
It is possible, however, to manage IBS through dietary changes, lifestyle modifications and stress management.
Changes to your diet include eating regular meals, drinking enough water and fluids, avoiding processed foods in your everyday diet, increasing dietary fibre and avoiding trigger foods e.g. Lactose, gluten, spices, artificial sweeteners (if tested as intolerant). Many Australians do not consume the recommended 25g of fibre per day into their diet, which can lead to constipation and irregular bowel movements. Fibre is necessary to swell the broken down food in the gastrointestinal tract and allow it to pass through easily. A lack of dietary fibre can affect the ease of the bowel movement, therefore leading to discomfort and bloating.
Participating in regular exercise can help to regulate bowel movements to avoid the sway between constipation and diarrhoea. Exercise can also help to manage stress levels either through vigorous activity such as running or more soothing activity such as yoga.
IBS is a condition that requires individual attention to determine diet triggers. Once this is achieved, your nutritionist can individualise a lifestyle management plan to ensure you live pain free and comfortable.