Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders that physicians see. Yet until recently, it was also one of the least talked about conditions. IBS is characterized by abdominal pain or cramping and changes in bowel function — including bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation — not something most people like to discuss. What’s more, for many years IBS was considered a psychological rather than a physical problem.
An estimated 35 million Americans have irritable bowel syndrome. It ranks second only to the common cold as a cause of lost work time and accounts for about 3 million physician visits in the United States every year.
Fortunately, unlike more serious intestinal diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome doesn’t cause inflammation or changes in bowel tissue or increase your risk of colorectal cancer.
Signs and Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- A bloated feeling
- Gas (flatulence)
- Diarrhea or constipation — people with IBS often experience alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea
- Mucus in the stool
- Like many people, you may have only mild symptoms of IBS. Or you may have intermittent symptoms that can sometimes be disabling. In some cases, you may have severe symptoms that don’t respond well to medical treatment.
For most people, IBS is a chronic condition, although there will likely be times when symptoms are worse and times when symptoms improve or even disappear completely.
Causes of IBS
The walls of the intestines are lined with layers of muscle that contract and relax as they move food from your stomach through the intestinal tract to the rectum. Normally, these muscles contract and relax in a coordinated rhythm. But if you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome, the contractions are stronger and last longer than normal. Food is forced through your intestines more quickly, causing gas, bloating and diarrhea. In some cases, however, the opposite occurs. Food passage slows, and stools become hard and dry.
No one knows exactly what causes IBS. Some researchers think IBS is caused by changes in the nerves that control sensation or muscle contractions in the bowel. Others believe the central nervous system may affect the colon. And because women are two to three times more likely than men to have IBS, researchers believe that hormonal changes also play a role. For many women, symptoms are worse during or around their menstrual periods.
For reasons that still aren’t clear, if you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome you probably react strongly to stimuli that don’t bother other people. Triggers for Irritable Bowel Syndrome can range from gas or pressure on your intestines to certain foods, medications or emotions. Chocolate, milk and alcohol might cause constipation or diarrhea, for instance. And the least bit of stress might send your colon into spasms.
In fact, if you’re like most people with IBS, you probably find that symptoms are worse or more frequent during stressful events, such as a change in your daily routine or family arguments. But while stress may aggravate symptoms, it doesn’t cause them.
Sometimes another illness, such as an acute episode of infectious diarrhea (gastroenteritis) can trigger Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Antibiotic use also may be a factor because antibiotics disrupt the normal bacterial flora living ing in your bowel. Excessive use of laxatives and even some antidiarrheal medications may contribute to the problem as well.
If you experience cramping and bloating occur mainly after eating dairy products or sugar-free gum or candies, the problem may not be irritable bowel syndrome. Instead, your body may not be able to tolerate the sugar (lactose) in dairy products or the artificial sweetener sorbitol.
Prevention of Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Anyone can experience digestive upset from worry or anxiety. But if you have IBS , stress-related symptoms such as abdominal pain and diarrhea tend to occur with greater frequency and intensity. Finding ways to deal with stress can be extremely helpful in preventing or alleviating symptoms of Irritable bowel syndrome:
- Counseling & Irritable Bowel Syndrome. In some cases, a health care professional such as a psychologist or psychiatrist can help you learn to reduce stress by looking at how you respond to events in your life and then working with you to modify or change that response.
- Biofeedback & Irritable Bowel Syndrome. This stress-reduction technique helps you reduce muscle tension and slow your heart rate with the help of a machine. You’re then taught how to produce these changes yourself. The goal is to help you enter a relaxed state so you can cope more easily with stress. Biofeedback is usually taught in hospitals and medical centers.
- Regular exercise, yoga, massage or meditation. These can all be effective ways to relieve stress. You can take classes in yoga and meditation, or practice at home using books or tapes.
- Progressive relaxation exercises. These help you relax every muscle in your body, one by one. Start by tightening the muscles in your feet, then concentrate on slowly letting all of the tension go. Next, tighten and relax your calves. Continue until every muscle in your body, including those in your eyes and scalp, is completely relaxed.
- Deep breathing. Most adults breathe from their chests. But you become calmer when you breathe from your diaphragm, the muscle that separates your chest from your abdomen. When you inhale, allow your belly to expand with air; when you exhale, your belly naturally contracts. Deep breathing can also help relax your abdominal muscles, which may lead to more normal bowel activity.
- Hypnosis. Studies show that hypnosis may reduce abdominal pain and bloating. A trained professional teaches you how to enter a relaxed state and then guides you as you imagine your intestinal muscles becoming smooth and calm.
- Other techniques. Set aside at least 20 minutes a day for any activity you find relaxing — listening to music, reading, playing computer games or just soaking in a warm bath.
Complementary and alternative medicine for Irritable Bowel Syndrome
The following nontraditional therapies may help relieve symptoms of IBS:
Acupuncture. In 1998, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a long-awaited statement on acupuncture. Among other benefits, NIH researchers found that acupuncture could provide significant relief from chronic pain. Although the NIH didn’t study the effects of acupuncture on other symptoms of IBS, some people have found that acupuncture can relax muscle spasms and improve bowel function. If you’d like to try acupuncture, ask for a referral from someone you know who has had these treatments or contact the National Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Alliance at 253-851-6896. Keep in mind that you may not experience immediate effects from nontraditional therapies and may require more than one session.
Herbs. Peppermint is a natural antispasmodic that relaxes smooth muscles in the intestines. A study published in the Journal of Gastroenterology reported that 110 people with IBS who took one enteric-coated peppermint capsule 15 to 30 minutes before meals for 1 month noted a significant improvement in bloating, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Be sure to use enteric-coated capsules, not uncoated capsules or peppermint tea, which may actually make symptoms worse. Peppermint may also aggravate heartburn. Before taking any herbs, check with your doctor to be sure they won’t interact or interfere with other medications you may be taking.
Below is a link that provides documentation to what we believe to be a safe and effective alternative to treating Irritable bowel syndrome. Also check out our brief IBS book review
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Primal Defense, A Natural Alternative
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Crohn’s Disease and Living Probiotics