Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) affects around one in five people in the UK. You can develop IBS at any age, but first symptoms usually occur between the ages of 20 and 30. Women are twice as likely to get it as men.
It’s not clear what causes IBS in some people – some believe they developed IBS after a bout of gastroenteritis and there is also evidence that the condition can be inherited.
You may find your symptoms are triggered by stress, eating certain foods, for example fatty foods, and taking certain antibiotics which affect gut bacteria. However, triggers are different for each person making them tricky to identify and therefore to avoid.
The most common symptoms include tummy pain, often in the lower left hand side and can vary from a dull ache to a sharp pain which may ease after going to the toilet. Bowel habits may change, alternating between constipation and diarrhoea, and may contain mucus. Your abdomen might also look and feel bloated.
Other common symptoms include fatigue and difficulty sleeping. There is also a link to anxiety and depression which may be caused by the stress of living with IBS – or some believe IBS symptoms may be an expression of mental stress, it’s unclear which comes first but it can certainly produce a vicious cycle so relieving anxiety is important.
IBS symptoms which are occasional and mild can often be eased with lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medicines from your pharmacy. But if your symptoms make it difficult for you to go about your daily activities, or they are new or have changed, it’s important to speak to your GP. IBS can’t be confirmed with a test. It’s usually diagnosed if you have typical IBS symptoms. However your GP may recommend you have blood or stool tests and/or scans to rule out some other conditions.
If you think you might have IBS keep a diary for a four weeks listing information on diet, medication, bowel habits, pain, exercise and mood. This will help the GP with a diagnosis and to help choose the right treatment plan.
Adjusting your diet and lifestyle can really help. Ensure you eat regular meals and drink at least eight glasses of water a day. Try to avoid, or at least limit, caffeine intake. You may have to adjust the amount and type of fibre you have in your diet depending on the type of IBS you have – your GP can give you a steer on this. Try to limit the amount of processed foods you eat and cut out artificial sweeteners, such as sorbitol, as they can cause diarrhoea.
Regular exercise of at least 30 minutes a day on at least five days each week often helps with symptoms, including mental wellbeing.
If your symptoms don’t improve with lifestyle changes, you may wish to try medicines although discuss with your pharmacist before doing so. Laxatives, such as ispaghula (eg Fybogel), can help if you have constipation. Antispasmodic medicines, such as mebeverine hydrochloride (eg Colofac) and peppermint oil capsules may help your abdominal pain and wind. Loperamide (eg Imodium), may help with diarrhoea. As with any medicine, if you find you have to use regularly then I suggest you visit your GP.
Richard Dunn is a community pharmacist with Gordons Chemists.
The content of this article is for general information purposes only. The information is not for diagnostic purposes and should not be treated as such. You should not rely on the information in this column as an alternative to medical advice from your GP.