Unlike other gastrointestinal disorders such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome does not cause any inflammation, nor does it increase the risk of developing cancer later on. Irritable bowel syndrome mainly affects women between the ages of 20 and 45, and it is usually chronic, with periods of exacerbation and times of remission where there are almost no symptoms. While it is not initially severe and its symptoms are well manageable, the syndrome is as yet incurable and does come with its share of aggravation.
What is irritable bowel syndrome? During the digestive process, foods travel through the stomach and the small intestine, finally ending up in the large intestine, also known as the colon. The muscles of the colon contract in order to push the food forward. In irritable bowel syndrome, the intestinal contractions are either too strong or too weak, which means the food travels too quickly or slowly through that part of the digestive tract. This is what causes diarrhea, constipation, abdominal cramps and pain, bloating, gas, the urgent need to pass stool or needing to go again right after having had a bowel movement.
For reasons that are still not clear, persons with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) react more strongly than average to various stimuli:
- Most individuals with IBS experience a worsening of their symptoms during periods of stress. Relaxation and stress management techniques can reduce the impact of these unpleasant episodes.
- Many people with IBS notice that the signs and symptoms of the disorder get worse when they eat certain foods. For example, they may observe that fatty foods, chocolate, coffee and/or alcohol cause constipation or diarrhea in their case. Soft drinks, along with some fruit and vegetables, may also cause bloating and discomfort.
To find out which foods exacerbate their symptoms, it is recommended that persons with IBS keep a food diary in which they can also jot down their symptoms over the course of a few weeks. When a certain food is suspected of aggravating symptoms, the individual can then try not eating it for some time in order to confirm it or rule it out as a trigger. It is strongly recommended that persons with IBS see a dietitian who will help them make the right dietary choices and ensure that they are getting all the nutrients necessary to feed their body.
Living well with IBS In many cases, you can alleviate your IBS with simple dietary or lifestyle changes. However, keep in mind that it may take some time for the body to respond to these changes, so be patient! Here are some suggestions:
- Experiment with fibre. Whether you suffer from diarrhea, constipation or both, fibre regulates intestinal function. It acts by increasing stool volume and making it softer. Since it can sometimes aggravate bloating and gas, it must be integrated into your diet gradually. High-fibre foods include whole-grain products, fruits, vegetables and legumes.
- In order to promote intestinal regularity, eat at regular mealtimes and don’t skip any meals.
- Drink a lot of liquids, especially water. Alcohol and beverages containing caffeine can exacerbate diarrhea, while soft drinks can worsen gas.
- Regular exercise helps improve mood, decrease stress and stimulate normal intestinal contractions. If you’ve been sedentary for quite a while, it is important to start slowly and to progressively increase the duration of your physical activity.
- Probiotics are “good” bacteria that live in your intestine. Some studies suggest that probiotic intake through yogurt or supplements can ease IBS symptoms.
- Some individuals are sensitive to dairy products. If this applies to you, you can try eating more yogurt rather than milk, and if necessary, take lactase supplements. These supplements help digest the lactose contained in dairy products.
- Use caution when taking laxatives and antidiarrheal medication. If you use over-the-counter medication, take the lowest dose that provides relief. In the long run, these types of medication can aggravate certain problems if they are not taken correctly. If you find you must take them frequently to relieve your symptoms, it would be best to speak to your physician.
Irritable bowel syndrome is common in persons who also suffer from depression or anxiety. In such cases, psychological counselling and relaxation techniques can prove beneficial. An antidepressant may be prescribed in certain cases. Antidepressants have been proven effective in alleviating symptoms of IBS in some depressed patients. They are also helpful in relieving pain, even in patients who do not have a mood disorder.
Since symptoms of IBS can be similar to those of other disorders, you should discuss your symptoms with your physician. In some cases, it is particularly important to consult a physician in order to correctly identify the disease at cause; for example, in cases where symptoms begin appearing after the age of 50, when they are accompanied by weight loss, rectal bleeding or night-time symptoms, when there is a family history of colon cancer, or if the patient recently took antibiotics.
Do you ever avoid certain activities or miss work because of irritable bowel syndrome? A healthy diet and better stress management could help you gain better control of the disorder. Dietary changes must be made gradually, however, so it is important to be patient and to persevere. In the end, your efforts will be rewarded by a better quality of life. For more information, speak to your doctor or pharmacist.