Not sure what Irritable Bowel Syndrome actually is, or what the symptoms are? We walk you through it, plus give you tips on how to ease the pain of an IBS flare.
What is IBS?
IBS – Irritable Bowel Syndrome or a ‘functional’ gut disorder – isn’t a fun diagnosis to get. But it’s a lot more common than people think…the NHS states that it will affect 1 in 5 people during their lives at some point, that it typically affects people who are between 20 and 30 years old, and disproportionately affects women (twice as many women as men are affected by IBS).
But…Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Isn’t that the thing where you have constant diarrhoea?
What actually is IBS though?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is an incredibly uncomfortable, but very common gut health issue. IBS itself is a gut disorder that negatively affects digestion, and therefore has a knock-on effect on your life. After all, our gut is called our second brain – there are "more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract". No wonder then, that if your gut is out of balance, the rest of you is too. IBS isn’t just diarrhoea - it can be a whole host of other symptoms (see below). Plus a side effect of IBS isn’t just digestive issues – it can expand out into anxiety and depression, taking up too much space in your mind and feeling all-consuming. Because if you can’t go about your daily life without feeling sick, it’s going to take a toll on your mental health too.
What are the symptoms of IBS?
The symptoms can be anything from mild to severe, and can be any mix of the following:
bloating after eating (sometimes extreme – hello ‘pregnancy’ belly!)
wind and trapped wind pains
lack of appetite
Changes in bowel movements (including mucus in the stools, or a sudden urgency or constipation that wasn’t there before)
Headaches and lethargy
So yes, there’s IBS-D that does indeed give you that horrible, urgent sense of needing the loo. Then there’s IBS-C, which affects you negatively in the other direction: constipation. And then for the ‘lucky’ ones, there’s IBS-A, which is “IBS-Alternate”…meaning you may be visited by either of the bowel extremes.
All these symptoms can add up to a very uncomfortable and frustrated you.
How can I ease my Irritable Bowel Symptoms?
Firstly, go to the GP and get a diagnosis. We can’t stress this enough. They may also refer you to a nutritionist to help with figuring out your diet.
Secondly, there's hot water bottles, sleep, peppermint and so on - we cover these in this blog post here.
But the main, and most important thing to do, is to understand your own personal version of Irritable bowel so that you can minimise (or even eliminate) the pain altogether, rather than just ‘live’ with it.
Your 'triggers' (the things in our diet and life that set in motion these awful, awful pains) will be unique to you; what may affect someone else might not affect you. So you need to start tracking and keeping close tabs on what you eat and how you feel afterwards. Without doing this for a few weeks – or even a few months – you may never really understand what it is that is affecting you.
A few helpful IBS-related websites
Just in case you want to do some additional reading:
Coeliac UK (because the symptoms can be similar and it's worth checking this out)
/r/ibs (for finding people out there who feel just like you do)
* A quick note about IBS
While IBS is common, its symptoms are often vague. If you are worried about any of your symptoms - especially sudden weight loss, jaundice, bloody stools or severe pain, please return to your GP immediately and insist on extra tests. Keeping a track of your symptoms can help your medical practitioner should a further diagnosis be necessary.