An estimated 10-20% of the UK population are suggested to have irritable bowel syndrome, commonly abbreviated to IBS (1). Despite being a common health condition, there’s still very little conversation around digestive problems, including IBS. In this blog, you’ll explore what IBS is, including the symptoms, causes, how it’s diagnosed and how it’s managed.
IBS is known as a syndrome because those with the condition experience multiple digestive symptoms. Symptoms may also differ between sufferers, meaning IBS can be unique to each individual.
The main symptoms that may lead a health professional to investigate for IBS or other digestive problems include abdominal pain (i.e. tummy pain), bloating, and changes in bowel habits. Changes in bowel habits include constipation and diarrhoea. Whilst you may only think you experience either constipation or diarrhoea, some people alternate between the two.
Other symptoms experienced with IBS include straining, urgency, incomplete evacuation (i.e. feeling you haven’t quite finished going to the toilet) and mucus. Some people also find symptoms worsen after eating, which may suggest a dietary trigger. Less direct symptoms associated with IBS include fatigue, nausea and backache.
Despite being a common digestive problem, there aren’t clearly defined causes of IBS. This can make diagnosis difficult.
Whilst the specific causes of IBS might not be known, scientists and health professionals have made some educated guesses on potential links and triggers for IBS symptoms. Below are just two of the proposed causes.
The gut is home to billions (and maybe trillions) of microbes, most of which are bacteria. This collection of microbes is referred to as the gut microbiome, and is a very sensitive ecosystem. Bacteria are often thought as bad, but in the case of our gut bacteria these are our friends. Poor lifestyle habits risk disrupting this sensitive gut microbiome, which can result in digestive symptoms.
Stress can result in digestive symptoms and IBS. The gut-brain axis connects the gut and the brain (although, you might have guessed that by the name). This connection is the reason that you feel ‘butterflies’ in your stomach when you’re nervous. High stress levels or prolonged periods of anxiety may result in digestive symptoms in some people.
Diagnosis of IBS can be complicated. There isn’t a test for IBS. Instead, it’s diagnosed by excluding the diagnosis of other health conditions. Getting a diagnosis may involve undergoing investigations and tests, such as blood tests. This process may take time, but it enables other health conditions to be ruled out.
There is no cure for IBS, and as such there isn’t a ‘treatment’. Instead, individual symptoms must be managed. This can often be achieved through lifestyle changes, although medical approaches may also be suggested by a doctor.
Working with a Registered (Associate) Nutritionist or Registered Dietitian may be an important part of helping to implement lifestyle changes to manage IBS symptoms. By taking the time to understand health and lifestyle history, they will be able to suggest suitable approaches to take.
Often, nutrition health professionals may suggest simple changes to start with. These simple changes include having regular meals, mindful eating, drinking plenty of fluids and reviewing fibre intake.
However, in some cases simple lifestyle changes don’t always work effectively. A nutrition professional may then suggest whether trialling a single food elimination diet or the low FODMAP diet is suitable. Any form of elimination diet requires supervision from a qualified nutrition professional. This is because eliminating food increases the risk of nutritional deficiencies. Not only this, elimination diets are also difficult to adhere to and without the correct support, dropout rates can be high. It’s also important to note that the low FODMAP diet is an investigation, meaning it shouldn’t be followed permanently.
Probiotic supplements may also be suggested. Probiotics contain live bacteria which have health benefits. They're thought to help restore the balance of the gut microbiome. Despite the wide range of probiotic supplements available to purchase, not all probiotics are equal. Always look for a probiotic supplement that has research to prove its benefits.
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IBS is a digestive health condition affecting approximately 10-20% of the UK population. Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating and changes in bowel habits. Whilst clear causes of IBS aren’t known, it’s suggested that an imbalance in the gut microbiome and high stress levels may contribute towards symptoms. There’s no cure for IBS but symptoms can be largely managed through lifestyle changes.