Living with irritable bowel syndrome: Causes, cures and treatments

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A gut expert spoke to Starts at 60 about the best way to manage IBS and the causes of the long-term condition. Source: Getty

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS as it’s also known, is a condition that impacts up to 15 per cent of the global population and around one in six Australians. It’s a condition that affects more women than men and tends to be a more common issue in the older population. Having said that, it is a condition that can start at any age, but tends to be a long-term issue once it begins.

Paediatric Gastroenterologist Andrew Day spoke to Starts at 60 about IBS and what treatment options are available. In simple terms, IBS is a condition of the digestive system, particularly impacting the large intestine. It’s a chronic condition that needs to be managed long-term and while there are various ways to manage the condition, there isn’t a cure.

What are the signs and symptoms?

There are many different signs and symptoms that can indicate someone is living with IBS. Most people experience discomfort and pain and it’s common for people to notice more than one symptom at a time.

One of the obvious symptoms is problems going to the bathroom. Many experience constipation, meaning they find it difficult to poo or to fully empty the bowels. On the other end of the scale, diarrhoea is also common, with faeces typically watery or the urge to poo increasing or occurring unexpectedly.

Bloating or the stomach feeling full and swollen is another symptom, while people with IBS can also experience stomach pain and cramps. Other symptoms can include incontinence, feelings of nausea, regular flatulence and even mucus in the faeces or around the bottom.

What causes it?

Like many health issues, IBS can be caused from a variety of different factors and it’s important to manage it by putting it in the context of everyday life. For some, the condition begins following a battle with a serious infection such as salmonella. For others, IBS is triggered by diet and foods including dairy products, wheat, beans, citrus and even fizzy drinks.

It’s also possible for stress to worsen symptoms, but it’s important to note it usually doesn’t cause them. Genes can also play a role so for people with a family history of IBS, there’s also a chance they will experience it.

How is it diagnosed?

Getting diagnosed can be tricky, particularly because there are other gut conditions that have very similar symptoms. In most cases, a doctor will investigate to make sure the symptoms don’t point to other gut conditions such as a gut infection, coeliac disease or bowel cancer. Because symptoms of different gut conditions can often overlap, it’s essentially that a doctor or health professional makes a proper diagnosis.

“Diagnosis is not just reading it on Google and sitting down on the kitchen table and working it out, it does need to be thought through and talked about with a doctor,” Day said. “It needs appropriate investigations to exclude other things.”

In most cases, doctors need to figure out exactly if the symptoms fit with IBS before they can work out an effective course of treatment.

How is it managed?

Management is really going to depend on what is causing the IBS in the first place, which is why a proper diagnosis is essential. For many, seeking help from a dietitian can set them on the right track.

“Some people can benefit from extra fibre and fibre supplements in terms of trying to regulate the bowel,” Day said. “Increasingly, we’re also aware that compounds known as short-chain fatty acids and butyrate is one of the most important of those, they’re really important in terms of how the gut works and can certainly be beneficial in people with IBS.”

Butyrate can be found in foods such as butter, but is also available in supplement form. It doesn’t require a prescription and should be discussed with a GP or health professional.

For patients where stress and anxiety worsens IBS conditions, counselling or other mindfulness techniques may be suggested. As always, it’s important to discuss any signs and symptoms with a GP or health professional to ensure the right treatment for each individual case.

Do you live with irritable bowel syndrome? How do you manage the condition?

Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and information purposes only. It does not take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. It is not personalised health advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any decisions about your health or changes to medication, diet and exercise routines you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from a medical professional.

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