Irritable Bowel Syndrome

What is irritable bowel syndrome?

    Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a prevalent disorder affecting the gastrointestinal tract, encompassing the stomach and intestines. Common symptoms include cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and alternating episodes of diarrhoea and constipation. IBS is a chronic condition necessitating long-term management.

    While only a minority of individuals with IBS experience severe symptoms, many can effectively manage their symptoms through dietary adjustments, lifestyle modifications, and stress reduction techniques. For those with more pronounced symptoms, medications and counselling can offer relief.

    It's important to note that IBS does not cause structural changes in bowel tissue, nor does it heighten the risk of colorectal cancer.

What are the causes of irritable bowel syndrome?

    Researchers have yet to pinpoint the exact cause of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but it is classified as a neuro gastrointestinal (GI) disorder. These conditions, also known as disorders of the gut-brain interaction, stem from issues with the coordination between the gut and brain, which is essential for proper digestive system function.

    Communication discrepancies between the brain and gut can lead to:

  • Dysmotility: Individuals with IBS may encounter challenges with the contraction and movement of GI muscles, particularly in the colon (large intestine). Heightened contractions in the colon often result in cramping and pain.
  • Visceral hypersensitivity: Some individuals with IBS exhibit heightened sensitivity in the nerves of their GI tract. This increased sensitivity can lower pain tolerance levels, making the digestive system overly responsive to abdominal discomfort or pain.

    Other potential contributors to IBS may include:

  • Gut bacteria: Studies indicate that individuals with IBS may possess altered gut bacteria profiles, potentially exacerbating symptoms. Variations in the types and quantities of gut bacteria have been observed between individuals with IBS and those without the condition.
  • Severe infections: In some cases, individuals are diagnosed with IBS following severe infections affecting their GI tract, suggesting a potential role for pathogens in developing the disorder.
  • Food intolerance: Sensitivities or allergies to specific foods could contribute to the manifestation of IBS symptoms.
  • Childhood stress: Research suggests that individuals who experienced significant stressors during childhood, such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, may have a higher likelihood of developing IBS later in life.

What are the triggers for IBS?

    If you're living with IBS, you may have identified specific triggers that exacerbate your symptoms. While these triggers don't cause the condition, they can contribute to or intensify symptom flare-ups. Common triggers include:

    1. Menstruation: Individuals assigned female at birth (AFAB) may notice a predictable worsening of symptoms according to their menstrual cycle.

    2. Specific Foods: Food triggers can vary widely from person to person. However, common culprits known to trigger IBS symptom flare-ups include dairy products, foods containing gluten (such as wheat), and foods or drinks that are known to cause gas.

    3. Stress: Some researchers propose that IBS may be the gut's response to stress. Consequently, IBS is sometimes referred to as a "nervous stomach" or "anxious stomach," highlighting the potential connection between stress and symptom exacerbation.

What are the risk factors for IBS?

    Many individuals experience occasional symptoms of IBS, but certain factors can increase the likelihood of developing the syndrome:

    1. Age: IBS is more prevalent in individuals under the age of 50.

    2. Gender: IBS is more commonly diagnosed in women. Additionally, oestrogen therapy before or after menopause may contribute to the risk of IBS.

    3. Family History: A family history of IBS may increase the likelihood of developing the condition. Genetic predisposition and shared environmental factors within families may play a role in its development.

    4. Mental Health: Individuals with anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions may have a higher risk of developing IBS. A history of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse could also be a contributing factor.

What are the symptoms of IBS?

    Symptoms of IBS can vary in intensity but typically persist over an extended period. The most frequently encountered symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain, cramping, or bloating, often associated with bowel movements
  • Alterations in the appearance of bowel movements
  • Changes in the frequency of bowel movements

    Additional symptoms commonly experienced may include a sensation of incomplete evacuation and heightened levels of gas or mucus in the stool.

When to see the doctor

    If you experience persistent changes in bowel habits or other symptoms associated with IBS, it's crucial to consult your healthcare provider. These symptoms could potentially indicate a more severe condition, such as colon cancer. More concerning symptoms include:

    1. Unexplained weight loss

    2. Nocturnal diarrhoea

    3. Rectal bleeding

    4. Iron deficiency anaemia

    5. Unexplained vomiting

    6. Persistent pain that is not alleviated by passing gas or having a bowel movement

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