IBS, which stands for irritable bowel syndrome, can develop at any age, but the symptoms usually start to advance between the ages of 20 and 30 years old, and are most prevalent in women.
The condition is a common, long-term disorder which affects the large intestine and digestive system.
The symptoms of IBS vary from patient to patient, but the most common associated with the condition include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, excess gas, diarrhoea, constipation, and mucus in stools.
IBS symptoms tend to come and go periodically, lasting from a few days to a few months at a time, and often increase during times of stress or after eating certain foods.
But what are the causes of the condition? Dr Ayesha Akbar, consultant gastroenterologist from The London Digestive Centre at The Princes Grace Hospital, part of HCA UK, has shared her expert knowledge on IBS.
IBS symptoms: There are five causes of the condition, including increased gut sensitivity
The exact cause of IBS is still unknown, but Dr Akbar said most experts think that it’s related to several factors, including increased sensitivity of the gut, problems digesting food, psychological factors, family history, and food triggers
The exact cause of IBS is still unknown, but Dr Akbar said most experts think that it’s related to several factors, including increased sensitivity of the gut, problems digesting food, psychological factors, family history, and food triggers.
Increased gut sensitivity
The nerves in the digestive system relay signals to the brain so that we know if we are feeling full/hungry or unwell. Many experts believe that poorly coordinated signals between the brain and the intestines can cause the body to overreact to changes that normally occur in the digestive process, often resulting in IBS symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhoea or constipation.
Irregular muscle contractions
The walls of the intestines are lined with muscle which contract to help move food through the digestive system. In IBS patients, it is believed that this process is altered, so that food moves through the digestive tract either too quickly or too slowly. Some people have contractions which are stronger than normal, causing food to move through the digestive tract too quickly and resulting in symptoms such as gas, bloating and/or diarrhoea. Other people have weak intestinal contractions, which can slow the process and lead to hard, dry stools.
IBS symptoms: Certain foods can often be the cause
There is evidence to suggest that physiological factors can trigger IBS. Feelings of stress, worry, and anxiety, or traumatic events can trigger chemical changes within the body, which interfere with the digestive system.
Previous research has led us to believe that certain foods and drinks can trigger the symptoms of IBS. These triggers vary from person to person, but the most common triggers include processed foods and drinks, alcohol, fizzy drinks, chocolate, caffeine, and fried food.
There is no scientific evidence to suggest that IBS is hereditary. However, there are trends showing multiple members of the same family suffering from the condition, and this has led us to believe that people are more susceptible to IBS if a parent or a sibling has it.”
IBS symptoms: Fizzy drinks can be a trigger
Can IBS be treated?
Dr Ayesha Akbar says: “Sadly, there is no cure for IBS, but the symptoms can usually be managed through diet and lifestyle changes. Controlling IBS depends purely on the symptoms experienced by each individual and the severity of them.
“At the London Digestive Centre, we always encourage our patients to identify any foods or drinks that trigger symptoms, and avoid these, alter the amount of fibre in their diet, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy lifestyle, and reduce their stress levels.”
Medication is sometimes prescribed to treat the individual symptoms if they are severe or debilitating. For example, if bloating and pain are particularly bad then a low dose of Amitryptiline or Nortryptiline, may be prescribed – and for severe boats of diarrhea, Loperamide (Imodium) may be taken.
Dr Akbar added: “Probiotics have also been shown to benefit some IBS sufferers, particularly Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium Infantis 35624, so patients may wish to factor these into their every-day diet too.
“Those who suffer from constipation may benefit from using laxatives. Abdominal cramps and bloating may improve with anti spasmodics such as peppermint oil capsules.”