By Carla Oates
As one of the most common digestive complaints, it’s estimated that as many as one in five Australians experience symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Women are also more likely to suffer from IBS than men—but despite its prevalence, it can be tricky to identify and diagnose.
This is due, in part, to the fact that the underlying cause of irritable bowel syndrome remains somewhat of a mystery. Like many gastrointestinal disorders, symptoms can be similar to other conditions—making its diagnosis difficult. For some, IBS can be triggered by gastrointestinal infections such as gastroenteritis, food allergies or intolerances, dietary factors such as insufficient fibre intake or an excess of spicy, sugary or processed foods, stress and some medications.
As IBS manifests itself differently for everyone, here are some of the most common signs and symptoms to look out for—as well as some information on how you can begin to treat this tricky condition.
For many people, abdominal pain or cramping is one of the most common symptoms of IBS—and it is usually only after a bowel movement that stomach pain begins to subside. Usually located in the lower abdomen, the pain can feel throbbing, stabbing, cramping, sharp or aching in nature.
Changes in bowel habits
It’s estimated that 20% of patients with IBS experience changeable bowel habits—alternating from painful constipation to diarrhoea. Patients with these ‘mixed’ bowel habits are said to have some of the more severe symptoms of IBS and so a more focused approach to treatment is required.
Frequent or loose bowel movements are typical of IBS—and one of the more distressing symptoms for patients as symptoms can strike quickly, and without warning. As stress can also be a common trigger for IBS, these two symptoms can be inextricably linked. It is not uncommon for mucus to also be present.
While diarrhoea is a common symptom of IBS, so too is constipation. In fact, research says that up to 50% of IBS sufferers experience constipation-predominant IBS. Straining, pain and the feeling of an incomplete bowel movement are all common with this form of IBS.
Gas & bloating
Bloating is common with IBS and when caused by excess gas in the digestive system, can be extremely painful. For patients with IBS, ongoing or chronic bloating is said to be one of the most frustrating symptoms.
One study shows that up to 70% of those with IBS experience symptoms due to food intolerances or food-related triggers such as lactose intolerance. However, it is unclear as to why certain foods seem to trigger symptoms in some people—while others do not.
Anxiety & stress
Due to the close link between our gut and our nervous system, it is unknown whether IBS symptoms are a physical expression of anxiety and stress—or whether the psychological distress of dealing with IBS worsens existing anxiety, heightening stress levels. This vicious cycle means that for many sufferers, the stress of dealing with IBS can trigger further digestive discomfort—and vice versa.
How To Treat IBS
If you think you have IBS, the first step is to speak to your healthcare practitioner in order to get a proper diagnosis. If your symptoms are severe, they may refer you to a gastroenterologist or gut health specialist to help develop more targeted treatment options, however for many, keeping IBS symptoms at bay is simply a matter of identifying triggers and implementing the right dietary changes and lifestyle tools to manage them and keep flare ups to a minimum.
If you suspect your symptoms are triggered by food intolerances, keeping a food diary may help you to identify the key culprits. Although there are countless foods that can contribute to IBS symptoms, avoiding excess caffeine, alcohol, sugar, refined carbohydrates, spices and irritating foods like gluten and dairy can help to ease symptoms for some. Research shows that a low-FODMAP diet can help to reduce IBS symptoms and adding probiotics to your daily routine may also be helpful.
For patients who feel their symptoms are triggered more by psychological or lifestyle factors such as stress, anxiety or fatigue, it’s essential to implement lifestyle changes that can reduce stress levels and subsequently help to ease symptoms and improve quality of life. Meditation, mindful movement and getting enough sleep are all surefire ways to help reduce stress, improve IBS—and support overall wellbeing.