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Coping With Irritable Bowel Syndrome

By: Kathryn Senior PhD - Updated: 10 Mar 2013 | comments*Discuss
Irritable Bowel Syndrome Ibs Bowel Colon

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can affect both sexes but it does occur more frequently in women. IBS can be at its worst at the time of your period, which makes that time of the month doubly painful. While many people dismiss IBS as ‘all in the mind’ it’s actually a physical condition caused when the communication pathways between the brain and the gut get confused.

The bowel, particularly the large bowel or colon, can start to contract faster than it should, causing the familiar symptoms of cramping pains, bloating, wind and grumbling noises. The colon also changes its speed of contractions, which means that you sometimes need to rush to the loo almost with diarrhoea and other times feel constipated and sluggish.

How is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Diagnosed?

The fact that the word syndrome is in the title used to describe this condition should tell you that diagnosis is not clear cut. There is no blood test that can show that you definitely have IBS. Even an internal examination with an endoscope can’t produce a definite pronouncement. Instead, women with a collection of symptoms can be diagnosed using the Rome Criteria.

These say that you have IBS if you have had symptoms for at least 12 weeks in the last year. Having cramps and bloating for a few days might mean you just ate something that didn’t agree with you, or that you perhaps have a gut virus. The pain or discomfort you experience usually goes away if you defecate and you probably also have alternating constipation and diarrhoea. This is defined as having three bowel movements a day if your stools are loose and watery, or less than 3 each week if you are constipated. Another tell-tale sign is passing mucus with your stool, although passing blood is rare. The pain and abnormal toilet pattern are usually accompanied by the feeling that you are very bloated, or filled with gas or wind.

IBS Treatments?

One of the things that makes irritable bowel syndrome worse is eating a very poor diet, low in fibre and high in fat and sugar. Unfortunately, if you are a busy mum, holding down a job and looking after a house and family, snacking on the go can be a way of life. The stress doesn’t help either. Although IBS is a physical condition, it is made worse by worry, stress, not getting enough sleep and not relaxing enough.

There is not recommended medical treatment for IBS; this may be partly due to the lack of understanding of IBS by the medical profession, who have labelled it as a psychological disorder in the past. It is also true that although irritable bowel syndrome can be a pain, it doesn’t cause a great loss of quality of life and is not a serious illness and the bowel is not damaged. For many people, it is the length of time that IBS carries on that is the real problem. Having unpredictable bowel habits can make holidays and other social situations more difficult.

Self Help for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

One of the best things you can do if irritable bowel syndrome is becoming a problem in your life is to take a good look at your lifestyle. Treating IBS means making changes. Your diet should be the best it can be, with plenty of fibre, fresh fruit, vegetables and mostly unprocessed food. Try to avoid rushing meals and look at your timetable to see if you can arrange more times to relax. Sleeping well can improve IBS, so having a regular bedtime routine; few late nights and not getting overtired can make a big difference.

It is generally not a good idea to try to self medicate. Taking laxatives or tablets to treat diarrhoea tend to make the problem worse. Some people swear by charcoal tablets for excessive wind but these may or may not help you. It is possible that IBS is at its worst when you are under a lot of stress and the symptoms improve when life calms down. More commonly though, people accept that they will have to learn to live with IBS, rather than search for a cure.

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