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What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Living with this distressing digestive complaint can be difficult. Find out what causes IBS, common symptoms and how to manage it

Written by Cheryl Freedman on March 7, 2019 Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on March 14, 2019

Ever experience stomach pain and bloating? If so, you may be wondering if your symptoms are actually irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a common gut condition, affecting up to one in five people in the UK at some point.1 So, could you be one of them?

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

IBS is a long-term condition that affects the large intestine. Symptoms can vary in severity but for some people, they can be very painful and distressing. Common IBS symptoms include:2
  • stomach cramps
  • bloating
  • excess gas
  • constipation, diarrhoea or both

What causes IBS?

It's not clear why IBS affects some people, and its exact cause is unknown.3 However, it has been linked to the following:

  • gastroenteritis IBS develops in up to 10% of previously healthy individuals after a bout of the stomach bug4
  • changes in gut microflora – the type and number of friendly bacteria in the gut may be different in someone with IBS5
  • increased gut sensitivity – people with IBS may have issues with their nervous system that make them ultra-sensitive to everyday abdominal changes6
  • a faulty gut-brain connection – the muscles in your intestines squeeze food through the digestive system but if the messages between your gut and brain become disrupted, food may pass through too quickly (diarrhoea) or too slowly (constipation)7

What can trigger IBS symptoms?

Diet: skipping meals or leaving long gaps between mealtimes can be a trigger. Certain foods can also set off an episode of IBS, such as caffeinated and fizzy drinks, alcohol, chocolate, spicy or fatty foods.8

Stress: according to a 2014 study in World Journal of Gastroenterology, anxiety or stress can upset the gut-brain connection. This may then lead to overactivity in your gut and trigger an IBS flare-up.9

How to prevent irritable bowel syndrome

There’s no cure for IBS, but making certain lifestyle changes can help prevent or reduce your symptoms:

Follow an ‘IBS diet’

Rather than eating three meals, try eating five or six smaller meals a day – this can help reduce the impact of food on an already over-stimulated digestive tract. You should also eat slowly, to avoid further stress on your digestion.

Consider switching to a low-FODMAP diet, too – but only with the help of a dietitian.10 This cuts down on gas-forming foods such as wheat, garlic, onions, milk and mushrooms.11 A 2016 review by New Zealand’s University of Dunedin found 86% of people with IBS following a low-FODMAP diet experienced relief from their symptoms, including pain and bloating.12

Take steps to reduce stress

If you have IBS, it’s especially important to include stress-reduction techniques in your life; calming your mind may help soothe your gut, too. Breathing exercises, tensing and then relaxing your muscles, and positive visualisation can all help IBS.13 Yoga may also have the potential to relieve IBS symptoms, according to a 2016 German review.14

Try peppermint oil

According to a 2008 report in The BMJ, peppermint oil has natural antispasmodic properties, and can help soothe symptoms of pain and bloating.15 In 2011 researchers from Australia’s University of Adelaide discovered how peppermint oil has this effect – the active ingredients in peppermint temporarily cause pain-sensing fibres in the gut to become less sensitive, easing inflammation.16

Managing your symptoms

It’s important to see your GP if you’re not sure what’s causing your digestive symptoms – other, more serious, health conditions can also cause stomach pain and diarrhoea, including Crohn’s disease and colitis.17

Your GP can also prescribe any medication if needed, such as laxatives.

Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.

Sources 

1. NHS Inform. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) 2. Mayo Clinic. Irritable bowel syndrome

3. As above

4. Science Daily. IBS and bloating: When gut microbiota gets out of balance

5. As Source 2
6. As Source 1
7. As Source 1

8. Cozma-Petrut A, et al. Diet in irritable bowel syndrome: What to recommend, not what to forbid to patients! 9. Qin HY, et al. Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndrome 10. International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. IBS Diet: What to Do and What to Avoid 11. IBS Diets. FODMAP Food List 12. Nanayakkara WS, et al. Efficacy of the low FODMAP diet for treating irritable bowel syndrome: the evidence to date 13. International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. Relaxation Techniques to Manage IBS Symptoms 14. Schumann D, et al. Effect of Yoga in the Therapy of Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Systematic Review 15. Ford A, et al. Effect of fibre, antispasmodics, and peppermint oil in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome: systematic review and meta-analysis 16. ScienceDaily. How peppermint helps to relieve irritable bowel syndrome 17. Timothy Huzar. Medical News Today. What is the difference between IBS and IBD?

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