Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a prevalent gastrointestinal disorder that can lead to a range of uncomfortable symptoms, including abdominal pain, changes in bowel habits, and even psychological distress. Although each individual's experience with IBS is unique, there are common symptoms and triggers that can help identify the condition. In this blog post, I will discuss nine key indicators of IBS, as well as steps you can take if you suspect you have this disorder.
Abdominal Pain and Cramps
Abdominal pain is the primary symptom used to diagnose IBS. This discomfort results from disrupted communication between the gut and the brain, which can lead to uncoordinated and painful tension in the digestive tract's muscles. Pain-relief strategies include dietary changes, alternative treatments, and medications prescribed by a gastroenterologist.
Diarrhoea-predominant IBS affects approximately one-third of IBS patients, characterised by frequent, loose, and watery stools. This subtype can cause significant stress and may lead to social isolation due to fear of sudden diarrhoea.
Contrary to what one might expect, IBS can also cause constipation. Constipation-predominant IBS affects roughly 35% of patients and results from altered brain-bowel communication. Management strategies include exercise, increased water intake, soluble fibre consumption, probiotics, and limiting the use of laxatives.
Alternating Diarrhoea and Constipation
Approximately 23% of IBS patients experience mixed or alternating symptoms. This subtype is typically more severe and requires a personalised treatment strategy.
Changes in Bowel Movements
IBS can cause variations in stool consistency, ranging from hard and dehydrated (due to slow transit) to loose and watery (due to rapid transit). Mucus accumulation in the stool is another possible symptom. Blood in the stool should be addressed immediately with a healthcare professional.
Gas and Bloating
Increased gas production and bloating are common IBS symptoms that can be persistent and uncomfortable. Reducing lactose and other FODMAPs in one's diet may help alleviate bloating.
Around 80% of IBS patients report that certain foods trigger their symptoms. Common culprits include gas-producing foods, FODMAPs, lactose, and gluten. Identifying and avoiding trigger foods can help manage IBS symptoms.
Fatigue and Sleep Disturbances
IBS patients often report fatigue and difficulty sleeping, with poor sleep quality predicting more severe gastrointestinal symptoms. Addressing sleep issues may help alleviate IBS symptoms.
Anxiety and Depression
There is a strong association between IBS and psychological distress, with each potentially exacerbating the other. Reducing anxiety and stress can lead to an improvement in IBS symptoms.
Steps to Take if You Suspect You Have IBS
If you suspect you have IBS, consult a primary care doctor or a general practitioner (GP) for diagnosis and referral to a gastroenterologist if necessary. Lifestyle changes, such as stress relief, regular exercise, a low FODMAP diet, and keeping a food diary, can help alleviate symptoms. Probiotic supplements and avoiding digestive stimulants may also be beneficial. In cases where symptoms do not respond to lifestyle changes or over-the-counter treatments, several medications are available that have proven effective. Sharing your symptom journal and food intake with your healthcare provider can aid in diagnosis and treatment.
Finding IBS Support
Living with IBS can be challenging, but support is available. Connecting with other individuals living with IBS can help you share experiences, tips, and coping strategies. Online forums, social media groups, and local support groups can provide valuable resources and a sense of community.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common gastrointestinal disorder that affects many South Africans. By understanding its symptoms, triggers, and management strategies, you can take steps to improve your quality of life. If you suspect you have IBS, consult a healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment tailored to your unique situation. Remember that support is available, and you do not have to navigate this journey alone.