Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) - a Personal View

Vernon Coleman

For several months I had a persistent, nagging pain in my back. It was just about in the region of my right kidney. It didn't seem to be getting any worse but it certainly wasn't getting any better.

For a while I managed to convince myself that it was nothing more than a muscular backache caused by crouching over a typewriter.

But then I noticed two additional symptoms.

I started feeling constantly `full' - as though I had just eaten a large meal - and I found myself visiting the loo more often than I found entirely convenient.

When I told my GP he took a routine urine sample.

And found blood.

The next step was a hospital appointment.

The ultrasound pictures showed a rather mis-shapen kidney. And more specialist X-ray pictures confirmed that there was something wrong. My kidney looked as though it was auditioning for a part as the hunchback of Notre Dame.

Unhappily, however, the radiologists couldn't get a really good view of my kidney. Their view was obscured by large bubbles of inconvenient gas lurking around in the coiled nooks and crannies of my intestinal loops.

So I was given an appointment to go to another, larger, city hospital for even more sophisticated tests. It was all very worrying. I knew that the doctors who had examined me suspected the worst. And without anyone saying anything I knew exactly how bad the worst could be. Very bad.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the kindly radiologist at the large city hospital told me that there was nothing seriously wrong with my kidney. It was, he assured me, mis-shapen but perfectly healthy.

And so, after racing up to Bristol to record a couple of TV programmes, and hurtling back home to write a column, I set off, as I had previously planned, to Paris.

On the plane flying over the Channel the pain in my back got much, much worse.

And I suddenly realised what was wrong.

The gas that the radiologist had spotted in my intestines had expanded because of the change in air pressure and it was the gas that was causing my pain.

And making me feel `full' all the time.

And irritating my bowel and my bladder.

And pressing on my kidney and causing the bleeding.

There was only one explanation for this apparently bizarre set of circumstances.

I had irritable bowel syndrome.

The moment I made the diagnosis I realised just why I had acquired this most common of twentieth century disorders.

First, I had been putting myself under an enormous amount of stress. For years I had run a series of passionate campaigns designed to spread the truth and oppose those parts of the medical establishment with which I disagreed. I had, for years, been spending twelve hours a day on my campaigns.

Second, I had changed my diet. I had cut out meat and fish and increased the quantity of vegetables and cereals.

The irritable bowel syndrome is, without a doubt, one of the commonest and most troublesome of all diseases.

Amazingly, as many as one in three people suffer from it. It affects men as well as women and the young as well as the old (though it primarily affects young women in their twenties, thirties and forties).

The Symptoms And Causes Of IBS

For the vast majority of sufferers there are three basic symptoms:
* pain - usually colicky and spasmodic
* diarrhoea or constipation
* wind
But those are by no means the only symptoms. Sufferers also commonly complain of:
* constantly feeling full
* nausea, heartburn or indigestion
* urinary frequency
* backache
* tiredness
* anxiety and depression
You should visit your doctor for a precise diagnosis if you think you could have irritable bowel syndrome.

But most patients with the disorder will recognise at least a few of the symptoms I have listed.

There are two very common causes of irritable bowel syndrome.

The first is stress.

Muscles of all kinds respond dramatically to tension.

Headaches, for example, are frequently caused when the muscles around the head are tightened by worry and anxiety.

The bowel muscles are as vulnerable as any other.

And the second cause of irritable bowel syndrome is diet.

Most of us eat a diet which is bland and contains far too little natural roughage.

How irritable bowel syndrome can be controlled

Although we know a good deal about the causes of irritable bowel syndrome we still don't know how to cure it.

But, as I have learned first hand, it can be controlled.

Here are a few of the things you can do to conquer irritable bowel syndrome.

1. Visit your doctor. There are things he can do to help. And many doctors do now recognise how troublesome irritable bowel syndrome can be. You should never, ever make a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome yourself. You should always visit your doctor and let him/her make the diagnosis. It is vital to exclude other possible causes of your symptoms. Only a doctor can do this.
2. Peppermint oil capsules are extremely effective at controlling the wind that is a common cause of symptoms in irritable bowel syndrome sufferers. You can buy these or you can obtain them with a doctor's prescription. Drinking peppermint tea may help too. Remember: never assume that you have irritable bowel syndrome until you have seen your doctor.
3. Try to control the amount of unnecessary stress and pressure in your life. Make a list of the priorities in your life and decide how you are going to allocate your time.
4. Gradually, increase the amount of fibre you eat. Eat wholemeal bread or high bran cereals, wholewheat pasta, brown rice and plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit. (Do this gradually - if you increase the amount of fibre you eat too quickly you may suffer from more wind).
5. Cut down your fat intake. Drink skimmed or semi-skimmed milk. If you eat meat choose lean cuts. Use low fat spreads instead of butter.
6. Try to do more exercise. Walk, swim, dance, cycle or work out in the gym. All those things will help you.
7. Warmth is an excellent remedy. If you get a painful tummy wrap a hot water bottle in a towel and hug it.
8. Spend a little time learning to relax. Learning to relax is like learning to drive a car or play golf: you need to put some effort into it.
9.Increase your intake of fluids. But don't drink too much milk. Quite a lot of people who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome react badly to dairy foods. Cutting milk out completely may help you. Cutting out other dairy products (such as cheese and cream) may also help.

Ten Ways To Reduce Your Intake Of Sugar

Too much sugar will cause tooth decay, make you fat, and increase your risk of developing heart disease. It is also claimed that large quantities of sugar will increase your risk of developing cancers of the breast, colon and rectum. Too much sugar may exacerbate irritable bowel syndrome.

So, to reduce your intake of sugar:
1. Read the labels on packaged foods and avoid buying products that contain added sugar.
2. Eat (moderate amounts of) dried fruits and nuts instead of sweets.
3. Gradually reduce the amount of sugar you use in tea or coffee.
4. Choose mineral water instead of sugar-rich soft drinks.
5. Make puddings with less sugar.
6. Eat fresh fruit rather than tinned. If you buy tinned fruit, go for products in juice rather than sugar-rich syrup.
7. Buy low sugar jams and marmalades and spread jam and marmalade more thinly on bread and toast.
8. When eating out choose fresh fruit instead of a high sugar, high fat pudding.
9. When cooking use other flavours - such as spices or fruits - instead of sugar.
10. Choose low sugar biscuits (instead of biscuits coated with chocolate).

Vernon Coleman's book Relief from IBS is published by EMJ Books and available from Publishing House (see contact details on this Web site) and all good bookshops.

Copyright Vernon Coleman 2005