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Condition - Unlocking the pain of irritable bowel syndrome

By Debbie Paddington Dip ION

April is International IBS Awareness month, which leads us to focus on this often debilitating condition. It is thought that between nine and 23% of the population worldwide suffer from it and many people are left undiagnosed.

So, if you suffer from stomach cramps, bloating, constipation or diarrhoea, you may be one of the estimated 20% of adults in the UK alone who suffer with IBS, a bowel condition that effects your large intestine. People with IBS have no obvious abnormality of the bowel, and the condition poses no serious threat to your health. For example, it won’t increase your chances of developing cancer or other bowel conditions. It can, however, be a very uncomfortable and embarrassing condition to have. The good news is though, that in many cases, managing your diet, lifestyle and stress may help.


The symptoms of IBS are usually worse after eating and tend to come and go. Sometimes people find that their symptoms subside for a few months and then return, while others report a constant worsening of symptoms over time.

The most common symptoms of IBS are:

• stomach pain and cramping, which is often relieved by emptying your bowel

• a change in your bowel habits, such as constipation or diarrhoea or sometimes alternating between both

• excessive wind

• an urgent need to go to the toilet

• a feeling that you need to open your bowel, even if you’ve just been to the toilet

• a feeling that you have not fully emptied your bowel

However, bleeding or unexplained weight loss are not symptoms of IBS and should be investigated.

Possible causes

Researchers have yet to discover any specific reasons for IBS, although possible causes include:

Abnormal serotonin levels

You have probably heard about serotonin production in the brain and how it relates to our mood, but our gut also produces serotonin, which acts on the nerves in the digestive tract. Some research suggests that IBS patients who suffer mainly from diarrhoea may have increased serotonin levels in the gut, while those with constipation-predominant IBS have decreased amounts. 

Low beneficial bacteria

Probiotics are “good” bacteria that normally live in your intestines and are found in certain foods, such as yoghurt, and in dietary supplements. It’s been suggested that people with irritable bowel syndrome may not have enough good bacteria, and that adding probiotics to the diet may help ease symptoms. Some studies have found that probiotics may relieve symptoms of IBS, such as abdominal pain and bloating, but more research is needed.

Low digestive enzymes

Digestive enzymes are needed to help break down food. Low levels of these enzymes can lead to symptoms such as bloating and wind.


Recent studies have described a possible role for parasites, such as Blastocystis hominis and Dientamoeba fragilis, in the cause of IBS.

Bacterial infections

Research indicates that IBS may be caused by bacterial gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and intestines aggravated by bacteria. Many different types of bacteria can cause bacterial gastroenteritis, including: E coli, salmonella, shigella and staphylococcus.

Food sensitivities

Many people find that their signs and symptoms worsen when they eat certain foods.


Stress and anxiety, can trigger chemical changes that interfere with the normal workings of the digestive system.


Researchers have found that women with IBS may have more symptoms during their menstrual periods, suggesting that female hormones can worsen IBS problems.

IBS-friendly diet

Slowly increase fibre. When you have irritable bowel syndrome, dietary fibre can have mixed results. Although it helps to reduce constipation, it can also make gas and cramping worse. The best approach is to gradually increase the amount of fibre in your diet over a period of weeks. Good sources of fibre include vegetables, oats, fruits and wholegrain cereals.

Have small regular meals and avoid missing meals or leaving long gaps between meals. Eating late at night is also best avoided.

Take your time when eating and ensure that you chew food thoroughly.

Drink plenty of liquids. Water or herbal teas are best. Alcohol and beverages that contain caffeine stimulate your intestines and can make diarrhoea worse, and carbonated drinks may produce excess gas.

Avoid problem foods. If certain foods make your signs and symptoms worse, don’t eat them. Common culprits include wheat, gluten, barley, dairy products, alcohol, chocolate, caffeinated beverages such as coffee and medications that contain caffeine, and sugar-free sweeteners such as sorbitol or mannitol. If gas is a problem for you, foods that might make symptoms worse include beans, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. Fatty foods may also be a problem for some people. Eliminating the offending food from the diet for a month and then re-introducing it back into your diet while monitoring your symptoms can help to identify any possible problem foods.

Doing a food intolerance test may also be useful.

Exercise regularly. Exercise helps relieve stress and stimulates normal contractions of your intestines, and can help you feel better about yourself. If you’ve been inactive, start slowly and gradually increase the amount of time you exercise. Aim to do a minimum of 30 minutes of vigorous exercise a day, at least five times a week. If you have other medical problems, check with your doctor before starting an exercise program.

Supporting nutrients

Multivitamin and mineral – nutrient absorption is commonly poor in those with IBS, so supplementing with a multivitamin and mineral is advised for general health and wellbeing.

5HTP – a supplement that contains 5HTP, the precursor to serotonin, may be useful for sufferers with constipation, but would not be recommended for those with diarrhoea.

Probiotics help to support a healthy digestive system.

Digestive enzymes – help the digestion and absorption of nutrients.

Anti-microbial nutrients, such as grapefruit seed extract, garlic and oregano, may be beneficial to take.

Aloe vera is very soothing and calming for the digestive tract.

Rhodiola may help the temporary relief of symptoms associated with stress.

Agnus castus may help to support healthy hormone balance in women.

“If you suffer from stomach cramps, bloating, constipation or diarrhoea, you may be one of the estimated 20% of adults in the UK alone, who suffer with IBS.”

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