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What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common condition. It affects 14-17% of all adults. Nearly 80% of sufferers are women, perhaps due to hormonal changes that come with the menstrual cycle. IBS can run in families. However, although genetics tends to play a part in IBS, it is not necessarily a rule of thumb that if your parent has IBS, you will also have IBS. It is a physical problem, NOT A RESULT OF EMOTIONAL OR PSYCHIATRIC DISORDER. In some people the nerves in the bowel are like stereo playing at full volume at all times. The everyday wear and tear gets amplified and can lead to terrible cramps, diarrhea, constipation or a mixture of all three. Almost a third of sufferers get IBS after having the flu or food poisoning. In these cases, the symptoms are milder and disappear after 3 to 5 years. IBS can be caused by poor diet, use of drugs such as laxatives, codeine and aspirin preparations, food allergies/intolerances, stress, anxiety and depression.

The functioning of the intestine usually is smooth and unnoticed. However, in people with IBS the muscles of the intestine can go into spasm, causing discomfort and pain. Also, there can be excessive secretions (acids, mucus). Problems in the intestine can affect other parts of the digestive tract such as the stomach.

Other symptoms of IBS are:

  • abdominal pain, often due to the spasms mentioned earlier or trapped gas, the pain may be sharp and well defined or dull
  • bloating (burping and gas), usually occurs right after meals and tends to be worse at the end of the day or during the night
  • indigestion often results from excessive acid secretion along with a spasm at the exit valve from the stomach, heartburn and/or nausea may also occur
Treatment for IBS are basic:
  • Lifestyle changes - adequate sleep and regular exercise, eliminate negative stresses.
  • Change of diet - a diet with more fibre helps some people.
    • eat three meals a day if agreeable to your system, some people find eating smaller meals more often through the day to be more helpful (make sure you eat a balanced diet)
    • restrict coffee, teas and colas
    • little alcohol
    • eliminate citrus fruits and juices, fried and fatty foods, strong spices, chocolate and peppermint if you experience heartburn or indigestion
  • Medications - stool softeners and antidiarrheal agents may help. Avoid any unnecessary medications (those that do not seem to help).
    • Antispasmodics, such as ibuprofen may alleviate cramps
    • Tricyclic antidepressants have a chemical property that reduces sensitivity to pain.
    • Fresh mint leaves brewed into a strong tea creates a natural antispasmodic.

Sample High Fibre Diet:
Breakfast     Approx.Dietary Fibre (g)
½ grapefruit 4
½ cup All Bran with milk 6
1 slice whole wheat toast 2
cheese wedge 0

Bran muffin 5

Tuna fish sandwich on
whole wheat bread 4
1 cup split pea soup 4
Apple 4
Milk 0

Spaghetti and meatballs 0
1 slice whole wheat bread 2
Salad 2
Orange 4
Milk 0

Total 37 grams of fibre

It is important to remember that IBS is not life-threatening. Nevertheless, it is wise to seek professional advice form your doctor. Once you learn to manage your symptoms, you can usually lead a normal life, with perhaps only occasional or only temporary inconvenience to your lifestyle and activities.

It is reassuring to know your doctor has ruled out other diseases which may appear similar to Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Self-medication over long periods of time with laxatives or bulk-producing remedies, without knowing what you are treating, may lead to medicine dependencies. This becomes expensive and doesn't provide you with any satisfactory relief.

Research has not yet been able to determine exactly why certain people suffer from IBS. The condition usually begins in young adulthood, and occasionally in adolescence.

Your doctor can help practice a healthier lifestyle. If you work towards healthier goals, you may find your flare-ups occur less frequently and eventually your symptoms could disappear altogether.

Compiled from:
Chatelaine, "Are you a 'Gut Reactor'?", Susan Hirshorn with research by Kim Pittaway, Apr. '97, p. 168.
Living with IBS: Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Reed & Carnrick Division, Block Drug Co. (Canada) Ltd.

Please note that you should always check with your doctor before undertaking any type of treatment.

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