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IBS: do you have it, and what are the treatment options?

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 11/04/2019 Katie Russell

Cropped shot of a young woman suffering from stomach cramps in her bedroom © Getty Cropped shot of a young woman suffering from stomach cramps in her bedroom If you’re reading this from the loo, where you have been sitting for 15 minutes, you may already have an inkling about the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

It’s the hidden condition that affects at least 1 in 10 of us in the UK, leaving us clutching our stomachs in agony and cursing certain foods. 

Unsurprisingly, problems with your gut can affect your mood – and it can be made even worse if you don’t fully understand the problem.

That’s why we have created this comprehensive guide to understanding the causes and symptoms of IBS, and how to treat the condition.

IBS: What are the symptoms?

No two cases of IBS are the same, and people experience different symptoms, with varying triggers.

However, the most common symptoms of IBS tend to be:

  • Stomach aches and bloating

  • Diarrhoea

  • Constipation

© Getty These can last for any amount of time, from a couple of hours in the evening to weeks or even months in the future.

Other symptoms you may experience include:

  • Flatulence

  • Incontinence

  • Nausea

  • Backache

  • Tiredness

If you think you may have IBS, you should consult your GP. Seek an urgent appointment if you have lost a lot of weight, turned pale, found a hard lump in your stomach, or if you are suffering from shortness of breath and heart palpitations.

When you visit the GP, they will talk to you about your symptoms. There is no absolute test for IBS, but they may take a blood test to check for other problems like coeliac disease, which has overlapping symptoms with IBS.

What causes IBS?

There are three common causes of IBS, according to Alison Reid, CEO of The IBS Network. Firstly, the after-effect of a powerful course of antibiotics, as this can unbalance the microbiome and make the bowel more sensitive. Secondly, you can have "post-traumatic IBS" in response to a series of distressing events. Or, finally, the condition may be caused by food poisoning – which is the case for 1 in 10 of IBS sufferers.

When you have IBS, your symptoms can be triggered by a combination of diet and lifestyle.

Gallery: 23 Foods Nutritionists Eat to Boost Their Immune System [Eat This, Not That!]

Certain foods can upset a sensitive gut, according to Reid. She advises you moderate your intake of: fatty foods, spices, caffeine, alcohol and certain vegetables – especially onions, broccoli, pulses, beans and lentils. These vegetables contain medium chain complex sugars that can’t be absorbed, so ferment in the colon, which causes flatulence and bloating.

A common IBS misconception is that it’s all about food intolerance. However, lifestyle factors are important. “Mood plays a big part in it. People’s anxiety and stress levels can cause them to have a sensitive gut,” Reid says. So you could have a bit of broccoli one week and be fine but the next week, if you’ve just had a row with your partner, the same meal could trigger your IBS symptoms.

If this is true, then why doesn’t everyone get stomach cramps if they have a chilli when they’re stressed? Not everyone has IBS because we all express stress differently, Reid explains. “Those with IBS express stress through issues in their gut in the same way people get neck ache or migraines.”

How can you treat IBS and minimise the symptoms?

Black man cutting vegetables for healthy vegetarian salad in kitchen, closeup © Getty Black man cutting vegetables for healthy vegetarian salad in kitchen, closeup Unfortunately, there is no magic pill for IBS and no absolute cure. “It’s a long-term condition that people can learn to live well with but it’s about them taking some responsibility to self-manage the condition,” Reid says.

Lifestyle changes are essential in learning to live with the symptoms. Cook using fresh vegetables, exercise and make time to relax. Plus avoid overloading on caffeine and alcohol and moderate your intake of fatty and spicy foods. The NHS also advise you don’t eat quickly or skip meals.

Invest in a food diary, writing down what you eat each day and whether there are any adverse effects. As IBS is individual to each person, you may find there are other foods you need to avoid. If, however, you find this list seriously restricts your dietary choices, go back to your GP and they may prescribe medication or recommend you to a dietitian.

A gut health clinic may be also beneficial, as Telegraph writer Claire Irvin found on her trip to the clinic that changed her life.

If stress is your major trigger, you may benefit from mindfulness or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a talking therapy that helps to relieve anxiety. One recent study followed 558 serious IBS sufferers who were either put on a programme of CBT or received standard care. Researchers found that patients in the CBT group were more likely to have experienced significant improvement in their symptoms after a year. They also reported a lower level of IBS's impact on their work and daily life.

Support groups can also be beneficial to your mental health, to reassure you that you’re not alone in this condition - find a group through The IBS Network.

Gallery: 40 Nutrition Experts Told Us The Foods You Should Be Eating Every Day [Eat This, Not That!]

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