Irritable bowel syndrome can save your
Irritable bowel syndrome is
one of the commonest and most troublesome of all diseases. Some experts claim
that at one time or another as many as one in three people suffer from it. It
affects men as much as women and it affects the young as much as the old.
Children under ten can get it and there are many sufferers in their seventies
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) probably affects as many
people as toothache or the common cold.
It is also one of the most
commonly misdiagnosed of all diseases - and one of the most badly treated. Once
it has developed it hardly ever disappears completely.
That's the bad
But there is good news.
First, irritable bowel syndrome
isn't dangerous or life-threatening; it doesn't turn into anything more serious,
it won't turn into cancer and it won't kill you or even threaten your life. The
symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome may be exhausting, irritating,
worrying and disabling but there is no underlying pathology.
although it does tend to hang around - once you have got it you've probably got
it for life - irritable bowel syndrome can be controlled. There is no quick,
simple, reliable cure because there is no clearly defined cause. But although
you may not be able to conquer irritable bowel syndrome completely - and make
the symptoms disappear - you CAN control it.
Third, and possibly most
important of all, having irritable bowel syndrome can actually save your life.
Not only are observant IBS sufferers more likely to notice changes in bowel
habit which might indicate a developing cancer, but the fact that IBS sufferers
usually find that they have to limit their intake of fatty food means that
individuals with IBS are probably less likely to suffer from heart disease or
cancer - the two biggest killers of our age.
Not many irritable bowel
syndrome sufferers have less than three of the symptoms I'm about to describe -
symptoms which I am going to group into categories simply for the sake of
First, there are the primary symptoms which involve the
bowel itself and what goes on inside it. Pain is probably the most obvious of
these symptoms - though it is also one of the most variable. It is often a
colicky, spasmodic sort of pain which comes and goes in waves; it can affect
just about any part of the abdomen and it frequently fades a little when the
sufferer goes to the toilet. Bowel irregularities are common too.
sufferers complain of diarrhoea - which can sometimes be quite sudden and
explosive - but, oddly enough, constipation is also a common symptom. Sometimes
the two problems alternate.
The third very common bowel problem
associated with this complaint is wind and this really is typical. Most
sufferers complain that their tummies swell up so much that their clothes don't
fit them properly. Many complain of embarrassing rumblings and gurglings and
other noises and of the social problems associated with escaping wind.
a survey of irritable bowel syndrome sufferers which was published in the
British Medical Journal, it was found that every single patient with this
problem complained of these three symptoms: abdominal pain, abdominal distension
caused by wind and an abnormal bowel habit.
Next, there are the
secondary symptoms which affect a lot of sufferers but which don't affect all
patients. You're almost certain to have the three primary symptoms but you are
unlikely to have all of these secondary symptoms.
One or two of the
secondary symptoms are caused by wind that is so widely associated with
irritable bowel syndrome and these will probably come and go as the wind comes
and goes. Symptoms in this category include a feeling of being full all the time
and not being able to eat very much, a constant feeling of nausea, heartburn and
indigestion. Back pains of one sort or another are also fairly commonplace and
these too are frequently a result of wind accumulating in the intestines. It's
even quite common for irritable bowel syndrome sufferers to complain of urinary
frequency and other bladder problems caused by pressure produced by wind in the
Last, but certainly not least, there are the mental symptoms
which aren't in any direct way related to the intestines or what is going on
inside them. Anxiety, depression and irritability are all common but the one
mental symptom that really seems to affect irritable bowel syndrome patients
more than any other is tiredness.
Even though you may be quite
convinced that you are suffering from irritable bowel syndrome you shouldn't
make the diagnosis by yourself without visiting your doctor. Although
irritable bowel syndrome is probably the commonest of all bowel problems today
there are other problems which can cause bowel symptoms and only by visiting
your doctor can you be absolutely sure that you have got the diagnosis right.
What causes irritable bowel syndrome?
There are two main
The first is stress.
I know that the word 'stress' has
been used a lot in the last few years. And you may feel that it has been
overworked. But the plain fact is that all muscles can be tightened up when you
are under too much stress. Tension headaches are a good example of what happens
when the muscles around your head are tightened by worry and anxiety. The
muscles in your bowel walls are no exception - they are as vulnerable and as
susceptible to stress as any other muscles - and in some individuals it is these
muscles which suffer first when stress starts to get out of control. Lots of
people who don't suffer from irritable bowel syndrome do get diarrhoea or
cramping pains in their tummies when they are under too much pressure or when
they are anxious.
The second explanation for the current epidemic of
irritable bowel syndrome lies in the type of food we tend to eat these
In the last century or so the people who produce, market and sell
our food have changed our diet almost beyond recognition.
Today most of
us tend to eat a bland over-refined diet that contains very little natural
roughage. And the result is that our bowels can't cope very well with this
change - they haven't had time to adapt and so they struggle. Our grandparents
ate a diet that contained lots of raw, natural foods. We tend to live on
prepackaged, convenience foods that may be rich in vitamins and minerals but
which are dangerously short on fibre. In addition, many modern packaged foods
are far too rich in fat for our health.
Although there is no single
wonder cure for irritable bowel syndrome there are a good many ways in which you
can control your symptoms.
First, you can take a good, hard look at the
amount of stress in your life.
Try, for example, to make a list of all
the things which worry you, which make you feel uptight, which keep you awake at
night, which give you butterflies in your stomach or which you know upset
Try to decide what things are really important to you. Decide how
you are going to allocate your time. And make sure that every week you take some
If you want to relax properly you're going to have to work at
it - and that will take a little effort and a little time. Learning to relax is
like learning to drive a car or learning to play golf or learning to dance:
you'll only get good at it if you put some effort into it.
probably need to take a long, cool, careful and critical look at your
You may benefit if you gradually (and it is vital to be cautious)
increase the amount of fibre that you eat. To do this, start eating wholemeal
bread or high bran cereals. Eat wholewheat pasta, brown rice, oats - in porridge
for example - and more fresh vegetables and fruit, though if you suffer a lot
from wind you will probably be wise to avoid any vegetables - such as sprouts -
which seem to cause a lot of wind. Nibble fruit and nuts instead of chocolate
Try to cut down your fat intake too.
If you eat meat
then cut off the visible fat and avoid red meats as often as you can. Drink
skimmed or semi-skimmed milk rather than the full fat variety; buy low fat salad
dressings, single cream rather than double and eat more fish. Make low fat
pastry, don't add fat when cooking, and grill, bake, steam, poach, casserole and
boil rather than roast or fry. When you make chips, cut them thickly so that
they soak up less fat and make sure that the fat is sizzling hot. Replace butter
on vegetables with herbs and instead of butter on bread, use a low fat spread.
Many IBS sufferers find that cutting down their fat consumption is the most
important way to control their symptoms.
Next, try to do more exercise.
Don't make the mistake of adding stress to your life by trying to run faster
than anyone else or by trying to win the local tennis club trophy. But do try to
take more exercise that is fun. Walk, swim, dance, cycle or work out in the gym
- all those things will help you because gentle, regular exercise seems to have
a soothing effect on the bowel.
Finally, although your IBS may well be
with you forever (it is rare for the symptoms to disappear entirely) remember
that by forcing you to change your diet for the better, IBS is one of the very
few non life-threatening diseases that can actually save your life!
Copyright Vernon Coleman