IBS can have a seriously detrimental impact on a person’s life, yet many people remain undiagnosed as they are too embarrassed to see their doctor, or dismiss their symptoms as insignificant.
In IBS Awareness Month, anyone with recurring or chronic gut-related symptoms is being encouraged to see their doctor for advice and support. Common symptoms of IBS include changes in bowel habits (constipation and/or diarrhea), abdominal bloating, pain, cramping and excessive flatulence.
IBS does not discriminate, and can affect people of all fitness levels, cultural backgrounds, and ages, however most people first experience symptoms during their late teens or early twenties. Each person’s experience of IBS can be unique, with symptoms and effective treatments varying significantly from person to person.
As Gut Foundation president Professor Terry Bolin says, “IBS most commonly starts after some kind of gastro bug like Bali belly or gastroenteritis. These illnesses can damage the lining of the gut, making it more sensitive, and can result in typical IBS symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, bloating and abdominal pain. Some people will have these symptoms for a while, and then spontaneously get better, but others may have to deal with symptoms on and off for the rest of their lives.”
An estimated one third of people with IBS will find that their symptoms go away completely, but the remainder will need to deal with symptoms that fluctuate throughout their lifetime.
“IBS symptoms can wax and wane, and the effectiveness of treatments can vary from person to person. Some people respond well to dietary changes, however others may find they require medication,” explains Prof Bolin.
Just as there are many ways that IBS presents, there are also many different remedies that are used to manage IBS symptoms. Some people find that relaxation and gentle exercise such as yoga helps, or find their symptoms ease through allied health treatments like ‘gut-directed hypnotherapy’, whereas others will only find relief through medication use – either over the counter or prescription.
“While not life-threatening, IBS can cause immense pain and discomfort for some people, and can impact people’s lives quite considerably,” says Prof Bolin. “There are many drugs available these days that can ease the pain and discomfort, help with bloating, and manage the constipation or diarrhea. That’s why it’s so important to see your doctor if you’re experiencing IBS-type symptoms, for proper diagnosis and advice. A doctor can also rule out any other health conditions, like Crohn’s Disease or Bowel Cancer.
“Diet can be a very effective way to control IBS symptoms for many people. While the low FODMAP diet* may be useful for some, other people may find it more beneficial to avoid other known irritants like fatty or spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine. Many people eliminate foods like dairy and gluten, thinking that this will help, but it is unnecessary to avoid them long-term, and may in fact mean you’re missing out on important nutrients.
“It’s important to be aware that IBS is a very real condition, with very real symptoms – it’s definitely not all in your head. Fortunately, there are also lots of different treatment options that can be very effective," says Prof Bolin.
*FODMAPs - Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols – are types of carbohydrates that can be poorly absorbed in the small intestine, resulting in increased water to be drawn into the gut, causing diarrhea in some people. For others, the carbohydrates travel to the large intestine, where they are fermented by bacteria, producing excess gas, which can cause typical IBS symptoms like bloating, constipation, flatulence, pain and nausea.
IBS Statistics & prevalence
- 20% (1 in 5) of population experiences IBS symptoms
- Most commonly begins in late teens / early 20s
- Women 3 times more likely to have IBS than men
- 1 in 5 sufferers will experience extreme, debilitating symptoms
- 2 in 5 will experience moderate symptoms, which can impact work and social activities
- Approximately 1 in 3 sufferers will spontaneously get better. The remainder will have symptoms that fluctuate through their lives.
- Famous people who have openly shared their IBS experience include Kirsten Dunst, Tyra Banks, John F. Kennedy, Cybill Shepherd and Kurt Cobain.
Primary IBS Symptoms
- Changes in bowel habits (constipation and/or diarrhea)
- Abdominal pain
- Excessive flatulence
- Mucous in stools
- Symptoms may be worse for women during menstruation.
- Dietary changes – e.g. the low FODMAP diet, under professional supervision
- Gut-directed hypnotherapy
- Gentle exercise, e.g. yoga
- Meditation / relaxation exercises
- Medication – over the counter and prescription – can treat pain, bloating and bowel symptoms (constipation or diarrhea).