What is IBS?

Suffering from unbearably painful stomach cramps? Find yourself stuck in the bathroom with diarrhoea or constipation? Feeling ridiculously bloated and struggling to find something in your wardrobe that fits? If you're experiencing these symptoms, there's a chance you've got IBS. But don't worry: it's not the end of the world. Today we're going to answer the question "What is IBS?" and look at the most common symptoms to see if it's what's causing your problems.

What is IBS? | Woman clutching her stomach in pain.

What is IBS?

IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) is a common long-term condition that affects the digestive system. It targets the large intestine and causes it to contract irregularly and more often than it should, leading to all kinds of nasty IBS symptoms.

Even though IBS affects 10-15% of people throughout the world, doctors still aren't totally confident about what is IBS or what causes it. Different people experience different IBS symptoms and everyday things such as food, environment, stress and sleep can cause symptoms to appear and disappear almost instantly, making the cause hard to pin down.

Here are some strong theories that researchers have about people with IBS:

  • They may have more sensitive colon
  • Their brain may interpret contractions in the gut more acutely
  • Their immune system may respond differently to infection and stress
  • IBS symptoms may be triggered by hormonal changes

Although the causes of IBS are a little blurry, doctors do recognise it as a legitimate medical condition. So please don't be put off visiting your doctor thinking they're going to say "It's all in your head". According to the American College of Gastroenterology, you can also answer the question "What is IBS?" by clearly defining what it is not:

  • It's not an anatomical or structural problem
  • It's not an identifiable chemical or physical disorder
  • It's not a type of cancer and will not cause cancer
  • It won't cause other gastrointestinal diseases

In short, there's no straightforward answer to the question "What is IBS?" But there are some clearly defined boundaries that help describe the disease.

What is IBS? | An empty roll of toilet paper on top of a full roll.

What is IBS? | What are the IBS symptoms?

I hate to tell you this, but there's no medical test for IBS. Most people are diagnosed with the disease because they experience the trademark IBS symptoms. Here are the most common ones:

  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Change in bowel habits (diarrhoea, constipation, or a mix of both)
  • Extreme stomach bloating and swelling
  • Excessive wind (flatulence)
  • Sometimes feeling an urgent need to visit the bathroom
  • A feeling that you haven't fully emptied your bowels after going to the bathroom
  • Mucus in your stool

These IBS symptoms can often be made worse by eating certain foods, being in stressful situations, wearing restrictive clothes and by taking certain medications, including antibiotics and painkillers.

Although almost everyone with IBS experiences the above symptoms, there are also some other, less common IBS symptoms that include:

  • Lack of energy (lethargy)
  • Generally feeling sick
  • Backache
  • Pain during sex (dyspareunia)
  • Incontinence

IBS symptoms might not seem like a big deal to anyone who's never had them. But as an IBS sufferer, I can tell you that they definitely are a big deal and can make you feel awful. The stress of worrying about if you'll get through the day without being doubled up in agony and the despair of not knowing what you can and can't eat can also make many people with IBS develop mental conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

If you've experienced any of the IBS symptoms on these lists at least three times over the past six months, you've probably got IBS and it's time to see a doctor. Make an appointment, write a list of all your symptoms and get ready to start feeling a whole lot better!

What is IBS? | A drawing of multicoloured people.

What is IBS? | Who gets IBS?

While the question "What is IBS?" may not be an easy one to answer, the question "Who gets IBS?" is much more straightforward. Essentially, anyone can develop IBS at any point in their life, but the disease is more prevalent in a certain demographic. Most people develop their first IBS symptoms between the ages of 20 and 30 and it's a lot more common in women than it is in men.

Again, because doctors aren't entirely sure what is IBS, they can't say for certain why this demographic are more likely to develop IBS symptoms.

What is IBS? | Strawberries, blueberries, oranges and kiwis in bowls.

What is IBS? | How do you treat IBS?

The bad news is that for most people, IBS is a long-term condition that you'll have to deal with for the rest of your life. The good news is that the disease is totally manageable and there are several different ways to treat it. So even if method A, method B and method C haven't worked for you, there's always method D, method E and method F for you to try!

Here are some treatments for IBS relief:

  • Antispasmodic medication (to calm the contractions in your gut)
  • Antidepressant medication (to relieve depression and reduce gut contractions)
  • Anti-anxiety medication(to relieve anxiety and reduce gut contractions)
  • Fibre supplements (to reduce bloating and relieve constipation)
  • Over-the-counter anti-diarrhoea medication
  • Over-the-counter laxatives
  • Probiotics (to reduce the bad bacteria and increase the good bacteria in the gut)
  • Antibiotics (recent studies show that antibiotics may radically reduce IBS symptoms)
  • Following a low FODMAP diet
  • Eating small meals at regular times
  • Chewing food thoroughly and eating slowly
  • Increasing water intake up to at least 2 litres / 0.5 gallons per day
  • Reducing stress through meditation, regular exercise or yoga

Before you even think of treating your IBS symptoms at home, you need to visit your doctor. They will carry out some tests to rule out other nasty stuff and determine whether you've got IBS or something else.

What is IBS? | My recommendations for treating IBS

I tried countless pills and combinations of pills from my doctor and none of it did the trick. Then one day (in Gatwick Airport, London on my way to China, of all places) I picked up a packet of Colpermin IBS Relief Capsules from Boots and was free from all IBS symptoms for 2 whole months! Since then I've also tried Buscopan and had the same fantastic results.

Another great way I've found for managing my IBS symptoms is to follow a low FODMAP diet. It's really restrictive and will leave you pulling your hair out when you first start. But it's the most effective way to get IBS relief without filling yourself with so many pills that you begin to rattle.

About Nicola

I’m Nicola, the face behind Happy Healthy Motivated – your go-to guide to becoming your best you!
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