Gut Foundation Blog

Irritable Bowel Syndrome Info

Gut Foundation - Thursday, April 20, 2017

April is IBS Awareness Month, and the Gut Foundation strongly encourages people with recurring or chronic gut-related symptoms to see their doctor for dietary and medical advice and support.

So, what exactly is IBS? 

IBS is short for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, the most common disorder of the human digestive tract, but a medical condition still often misunderstood by many. Some even say that IBS doesn’t actually exist. In response, Professor Terry Bolin - President of the Gut Foundation - is very clear: 

“It’s important to be aware that IBS is a very real condition, with very real symptoms – it’s definitely not all in your head… Fortunately, there are also lots of different treatment options that can be very effective.”

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is often also incorrectly associated and confused with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), a term describing two chronic health conditions that cause inflammation of the small and/or large bowel - Ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease.

IBD results from intestinal inflammation which in turn can cause elevated white blood cell counts, bleeding and fever - as well as abdominal cramping, pain and diarrhea. Normally, IBD abnormalities can be identified via a CT scan or colonoscopy.

IBS on the other hand, is a collection of symptoms that result from abnormal functioning in the small and/or large bowel. With IBS, a colonoscopy or barium x-ray will not identify abnormalities, and bleeding and fever or elevated white cell counts are not associated.

Major symptoms of IBS include discomfort, pain, cramping and bloating in the abdominal area and stomach, excessive flatulence (wind), and severe constipation and chronic diarrhea (or both).

IBS is best diagnosed by your doctor or health professional on the basis of your personal symptoms and medical history and after elimination of other possible diagnoses such as Crohn’s disease, Celiac disease and bowel cancer.

In Australia in 2017, approximately 20% of the population experience IBS symptoms and women are three times more likely to have IBS than men. Menstruation and periods of high stress may also exacerbate symptoms for women.

On average, symptoms commonly begin during the late-teenage years and the early twenties, however a recent survey indicated that some 40% of children had experienced some abdominal pain and diarrhea. Without changes to their diet, these children may grow up to develop IBS.

Of all Australians who experience IBS: one in five will have extremely debilitating symptoms; two in five will have moderate symptoms which may impact upon social activities and work; one in three will spontaneously get better; and the remainder will experience symptoms that will fluctuate and come and go through their lives.

Regardless of the nature or reality of IBS symptoms for individuals, opting to explore management and treatment options can make a real difference, as Professor Bolin explains:

“IBS symptoms can wax and wane, and the effectiveness of treatments can vary from person to person. Some people respond well to dietary changes; however, others may only find relief through medication,”

Just as there are many ways that IBS is experienced, there are also many different remedies and strategies that are used to manage IBS symptoms. Some people find relief through relaxation and gentle exercise such as yoga, or through allied health treatments like physiotherapy or gut-directed hypnotherapy, whereas others only find their symptoms eased through the use of over-the counter or prescription medications.

“While not life-threatening, IBS can cause immense pain and discomfort for some people, and can impact people’s lives quite considerably,” continues Prof Bolin. “There are many drugs available these days that can ease the pain and discomfort, help with bloating, and manage the constipation or diarrhea. That’s why it’s so important to see your doctor if you’re experiencing IBS-type symptoms, for proper diagnosis and advice. A doctor can also rule out any other health conditions, like Crohn’s Disease or Bowel Cancer.”

In the area of dietary management of IBS, some are choosing to utilize or trial the low FODMAP diet, which involves eliminating certain carbohydrates from the diet for a period of 2 – 4 weeks, and then reintroducing them in a specific order, to identify IBS triggers.

Chloe McLeod, Accredited Practicing Dietician, and Director of The FODMAP Challenge online program explains:

Following a diet that is low in FODMAPs has been shown to help relieve symptoms of IBS for some people. FODMAPs - Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols – are types of carbohydrates that can be poorly absorbed in the small intestine, resulting in increased water to be drawn into the gut, causing diarrhea in some people. For others, the carbohydrates travel to the large intestine, where they are fermented by bacteria, producing excess gas, which can cause typical IBS symptoms like bloating, constipation, flatulence, pain and nausea.”

Prof Bolin adds, “Diet can be a very effective way to control IBS symptoms for many people. While the low FODMAP diet may be useful for some, other people may find it more beneficial to avoid other known irritants like fatty or spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine. Many people eliminate foods like dairy and gluten, thinking that this will help, but it is unnecessary to avoid them long-term, and may in fact mean you’re missing out on important nutrients.”

With this in mind, it is important to recognise that the low FODMAP diet is ideally a temporary change – the strict elimination phase should only be around 2-4 weeks - and reintroduction of high FODMAP foods should always be done under supervision of a registered GP or Accredited Practicing Dietician.

When managing and treating your IBS symptoms and making important decisions about your health and wellbeing, always work closely with your doctor. They should always carefully explain your condition to you, answer your questions, and work with you to develop a management plan suitable for your individual needs.

Your doctor can also work with you to discover if psychological issues like anxiety, depression or stress pose a risk, challenge or problem for you. In some cases, it may be beneficial to see a psychologist or counsellor who can assist you to develop strategies for dealing with these issues and for coping with IBS.

The Gut Foundation specialises in medical research to understand the causes of gut problems, better methods of prevention and treatment, and continually educating the public on the latest findings.

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