I shed some light on this complex condition, to help you get out of pain and discomfort and start enjoying life again.
If you have IBS, or suspect you do, you might feel confused about what to eat or worried you’ll never get better. IBS can be incredibly frustrating to live with and the symptoms will vary from person to person. It’s a widely written about topic, but advice on how to effectively manage and live with the condition can cause confusion; and what works for one, may not work for another. To shed some light on this complex condition, I share some myths and facts about IBS to help you to alleviate the pain and discomfort, and start enjoying life again.
You can read my article for April's IBS Awareness Month in Dose magazine online or get everything you need to know below.
1. Stress and anxiety can cause IBS – FACT
The cause of IBS can be complex, from food intolerances to genetics. But a significant period of stress, like financial troubles, can contribute. Plus, there’s a strong neural link between your brain and gut, so ongoing anxiety and worry can also cause digestive chaos – often manifesting as abdominal pain and diarrhoea. Just think about how you get butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous, or your stomach churns when you are worried about something. Slow life down a bit and prioritise your mental wellbeing. Positive lifestyle changes like exercise, mindfulness or yoga can have great effect on your digestion and your mood, especially if you build them in regularly to your life.
2. Certain foods and drinks can trigger IBS – FACT
Caffeine stimulates the gastro-colic reflex, explaining that urgency after your morning coffee; alcohol and spicy food often have similar effects. Gluten gets a bad rap, but researchers think fermentable carbohydrates are more significant for IBS sufferers. Found in milk, wheat and some fruit and vegetables, including apples and garlic, FODMAPs attract water and create excess gas in the gut, causing stomach sensitivity. Reduce suspected trigger foods and then slowly reintroduce them one at a time to find your personal tolerance, so you don’t cut out foods if you don’t have to.
3. You can get tested for IBS – MYTH
IBS can be difficult to diagnose. Medical experts think that IBS sufferers have increased gut sensitivity or altered digestive function, but there are rarely physical signs. Your GP will ask about your symptoms, how often you experience them and at what times. Take along some notes, so you don’t forget any important information. There is no test for IBS, but this doesn’t mean it’s all in your mind. Alongside understanding your symptoms your GP will be looking for health conditions to rule out. He might feel your abdomen for lumps or swelling; or refer you for a blood test to rule out coeliac disease. It’s important not to self-diagnose. It may be helpful to track your symptoms (i.e. number of stools) for a couple of weeks before visiting the GP or gastroenterologist, as this could help them to establish the next steps towards the correct diagnosis.
4. IBS symptoms are the same for everyone – MYTH
There are hallmark symptoms of IBS: regular abdominal pain or discomfort and a change in bowel habit, for instance chronic diarrhoea or frequent constipation. But what really makes IBS diagnosis and management difficult is its unpredictability and other symptoms that vary from person to person – from bloating and swallowing problems to backache and nausea. While you might feel worse after eating spicy or fatty food, but your colleague could have symptoms for months without any idea of the trigger. Knowing your personal symptoms important, as is flagging any changes to your doctor.
5. There is no treatment for IBS – MYTH
For some people, IBS can be life-long. Others may experience digestive problems during a period of extreme stress, and then recover. Either way, IBS can make daily life difficult, increasing your digestive discomfort. But there are ways you can take control of your symptoms. Small changes to your diet can be very effective, especially when they take into account your lifestyle, the cause of your symptoms and how you react to different foods.
6. IBS can lead to more serious digestive conditions – MYTH
There are similarities between IBS and more serious health issues like coeliac disease, inflammatory bowel disease or cancer. It’s important to see your GP straight away if you spot blood in your stool, a warning sign. But IBS is not dangerous, and there’s no link to developing further bowel problems. If you’ve made ongoing changes to your diet to manage IBS, like reducing fibre, that can have long-term effects on your health. Fibre helps reduce the risk of bowel cancer, so make sure you get enough – if wheat causes irritation, try spelt sourdough bread, brown rice and root vegetables.