This diagnosis is a catch-all label for a group of symptoms which may vary from person to person, but which seem to directly affect the bowel. The symptoms can range from constipation to diarrhoea, a mix of both, flatulence, bloating, pain, urgency or heartburn. Once the medical advisor has excluded the possibility of more serious problems, the diagnosis of IBS is chosen, mainly as its name describes what is happening - the bowel is irritated. This may be happening for a variety of reasons and it is important to analyse what is affecting us individually.
The causes of such inflammation may be Infection, Diet, Allergy, Trauma / Drugs or Stress :-
In a "healthy" bowel we would expect the small intestine to be almost free from bacteria, but the large intestine has great colonies of bacteria which play an important role in the digestion of our food. While these bacteria are kept balanced there are no problems. Once the organic interactive balance is disturbed or another bacteria, virus or parasite invades then we are likely to experience problems with our digestive system. If the IBS initially started after a bout of gastro-enteritis, exposure to parasites or another infection, then we need to consider ways of clearing any remaining infection either conventionally or homoeopathically.
Once the healthy balance of organisms in our gut has been disturbed we are susceptible to the overgrowth of other opportunistic organisms, such as Candida Albicans. This fungus is often found in the gut but can cause problems if not kept in check by antagonistic bacteria. Many symptoms such as bloating and flatulence can be directly linked to the fermentation of Candida in the bowels.
There are many opinions on what constitutes a "healthy" diet. Certainly for those suffering IBS symptoms there are helpful guidelines.
- Cut down sugar intake
- Increase fluid intake, especially water
- Include fibre in the diet in the form of vegetable fibre particularly. Adding fibre only in the form of wheat bran can irritate the gut and impair absorption of minerals and vitamins from food
- Consider a vitamin and mineral supplement (especially B Complex, C, A, D, Zinc, Iron and Calcium)
- Consider a probiotic supplement containing bacteria friendly to the gut
IBS symptoms can sometimes be evidence of food allergy - often to the very foods we seem addicted to. Common offenders are wheat, yeast products, milk or coffee. If the gut is irritated by an allergic reaction, absorption of nutrients is impaired and other physical symptoms develop. Care is needed when adjusting any diet to ensure adequate nutrition. So if you decide to exclude any food, be sure to balance the diet by introducing alternatives.
Trauma / Drugs
After an accident or operation the gut will need time and support to settle. Many drugs have the effect of throwing out the healthy balance of organisms in the bowel. Often a course of antibiotics is enough to disturb digestion. Long term dosage with drugs such as steroids and the contraceptive pill directly disturb the intestines.
This is one of the main causes of IBS and is often involved along with one of the other triggers, the stress initially making us more vulnerable. When we are under pressure, shocked or frightened our gut immediately reacts to the Flight or Fight response. If the stress continues over a period of time, we still react with our gut, but in a chronic way. Rather than immediate diarrhoea (with acute stress) we develop constipation or a mix of bowel habit which leaves us feeling physically uncomfortable. Learning to relax, learning coping strategies, saying "No", looking after ourselves, recharging, taking Rescue Remedy or other Bach Flower remedies may all help. Ultimately it is best to work out what is causing the stress and resolve it. This route is rarely easy and occasionally not possible, but we must remember we have a choice.
Sometimes we get caught in a vicious cycle of worrying about our bowel symptoms that creates tension and correspondingly aggravates those very symptoms. We need then to find a way of breaking into the cycle and reclaiming control.
Regularly using the relaxation CD available on this website can help us learn to relax and feel more in control.
So what else can we do?
For short-term relief from the acute physical symptoms some people use Ginger tea or Peppermint tea.
As well as eating healthily, not smoking, reducing our stress levels, checking for chronic infections or allergies, taking probiotics and supplements as necessary, you can also consult a homeopath for individual support.
If you discover blood in your stools or there is a marked change in your bowel habit for which there is no obvious reason, then do consult your GP.
IBS is increasingly common. Estimates of sufferers vary from 10% of the adult population to 24% of all women and 19% of all men. This means that hundreds of thousands of people are living with pain and discomfort as a matter of daily routine. As an optimistic homoeopath I feel there are many ways of alleviating and curing these symptoms. It does take dedication, time and perseverance sometimes, but it is usually well worth it.