Irritable bowel syndrome is a disease of the digestive tract that can cause abdominal pain, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, among other things. In this guide, we'll give you a complete overview of what Irritable Bowel Syndrome is, what symptoms it causes, what causes it, how to treat it, and more.
What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a functional disorder of the gastrointestinal tract characterized by irregular bowel movements, abdominal pain and bloating. It's not dangerous, but it can still be very annoying, upsetting, or limiting.
Irritable bowel syndrome is often associated with stress. However, there is no evidence that psychological factors such as depression, anxiety or hypochondria affect the onset or course of IBS. On the other hand, there is some evidence that stress can make symptoms worse, but that doesn't mean patients are imagining IBS. The gut is one of the organs with the most nerve connections to the brain, so the signals sent between the two organs can create very real changes. Under stress, the brain can send different signals than usual, which could explain why mood swings, for example, can affect the condition. Symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea or other abdominal pain can improve with changes in diet and lifestyle.
Irritable bowel syndrome is relatively common and it is estimated that between 10% and 25% of the population in Europe suffer from it. The prevalence in women is higher than in men. The cause of irritable bowel syndrome is not yet fully understood.
Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms can vary from person to person and also over time. However, the most common symptoms can be described as follows:
Abdominal pain or discomfort: This is the most common symptom and a key factor in identifying the diagnosis. In irritable bowel syndrome, the signal transmission between the brain and intestines is disrupted. Where these organs normally work together to control digestion, distractions occur, leading to painful and uncontrolled muscle contractions. The pain usually occurs in the lower abdomen, but is often felt as pain in the entire intestinal system.
Diarrhea: About a third of irritable bowel patients suffer from diarrhoea. The diarrhea can come on suddenly, and many report psychological stress that causes them to avoid certain social situations.
Constipation: Almost 50% of patients with IBS suffer from constipation. When the communication between the brain and the gut isn't working optimally, the normal time it takes to have a bowel movement can increase or decrease. When communication slows down, the intestine absorbs more water from the stool and it can lead to constipation. Drinking more water, exercising, eating more fiber and lactic acid bacteria can help with constipation.
Bloating: When digestion changes due to IBS, it can lead to increased production of air in the intestines. This causes patients to feel bloated.
The extent of the symptoms varies from person to person and is considered to be acceptable to difficult. Symptoms also vary over time in the same person, with symptoms being mild to moderate in one period and more prominent in another. Abdominal pain is common in irritable bowel syndrome. Irritable bowel syndrome is not considered a serious condition, although it can significantly affect the quality of life of those affected.
Causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome
The specific causes of irritable bowel syndrome are still unknown. The various factors that can play a role in the development of irritable bowel syndrome include diet, genetics, hormones, and environmental factors such as stress. It is believed that the gut overreacts to normal foods and this response triggers too much or too little movement in the gut, leading to the symptoms mentioned above.
There are also a number of patients who develop irritable bowel syndrome after suffering food poisoning on a trip south, but apart from these cases, the cause of irritable bowel syndrome is unknown. It is currently being researched whether the disease is hereditary, whether it is related to the psyche or what other factors contribute to the disorder. Although stress, worry, tension, anxiety, and everyday problems can contribute to this type of stomach upset, they are not thought to be the cause. Recent evidence suggests that the gut responds to certain types of carbohydrates, and it is suggested that patients with recurring symptoms make dietary changes to reduce their intake of poorly digestible carbohydrates, known as FODMAPs.
Treatment of irritable bowel syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome is considered a chronic condition where symptoms can vary over time. In some people, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome become less common over time, while in others they increase.
It is important to have a good and open dialogue with the doctor throughout the process to take a full medical history and perform various tests to rule out other causes of the symptoms. These tests may include blood tests, stool samples, a gastroscopy, or a colonoscopy.
Many things can be done to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life. It is often recommended to keep a symptom diary to identify foods and situations that make symptoms worse and to make lifestyle changes through diet changes and increased physical activity.
Research has shown that a significant proportion of patients can experience a reduction in symptoms by switching to a low FODMAP diet. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono- and Polysaccharides, a term for carbohydrates that are difficult to digest and that the small intestine has difficulty breaking down and absorbing. They are carbohydrates such as fructose, lactose, fructans, galactans and polyols found in various healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains.
The low FODMAP diet is a diet that can seem a bit overwhelming at first, but the doctor or a nutritionist can help make the transition smooth. In short, the diet aims to reduce intake of indigestible carbohydrates, which have been shown to cause symptoms. The diet is divided into two phases. In the first phase, sufferers stick to a low-FODMAP diet for two to six weeks. This is followed by the second phase, the so-called reintroduction phase. During the reintroduction phase, the foods that were systematically avoided in the first phase are reintroduced. The aim of this phase is to control the symptoms as well as possible and to restrict the patients as little as possible. This stage identifies the foods that cause the most symptoms. Even if there is improvement in the first phase, it is important to reintroduce the food and control the symptoms. Prolonged abstinence from food can impair the absorption of essential nutrients and is not recommended. Most commonly, patients are advised to change their diet and find out what the worst triggers for their symptoms are.
Aside from medications that relieve bloating and/or stomach pain, there is also FODZYME's digestive enzyme. It is the world's first digestive enzyme that breaks down FODMAPs and thus makes them digestible. With FODZYME, onions and garlic, among other things, can be eaten again without any symptoms. The powder is sprinkled directly over the food.
Some people also experience relief from their symptoms by taking probiotics. Probiotics contain live bacteria that can improve the bacterial flora in the gut. You can find them both in nature and as an additive to foods such as Biola, yoghurt and kefir.
Many patients report that their symptoms increase when they are under stress. It can therefore be beneficial to learn various stress management techniques such as yoga, meditation, breathing exercises and relaxation techniques. If you're particularly stressed and anxious, talk therapy can also help. In general, physical activity is recommended to improve bowel movements and reduce pain. Regular physical activity can relieve bloating by facilitating the movement of intestinal gases, and has been shown to reduce stress hormones in the body by increasing the production of endorphins. It is recommended that you get at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day.
To reduce and control irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, it may also pay off to pay attention not only to what you eat but also how you eat your meals. Eat regularly, chew your food well, and be quiet during meals. To keep your gut active throughout the day, it can help to avoid eating more than 3-4 hours between meals and drink at least 1.5 liters of water daily. Also, try to limit your consumption of caffeinated beverages like coffee, alcohol, and carbonated drinks.
Finally, some patients report improvement with hypnosis when they do not respond to lifestyle changes. Hypnosis can help patients relax more, thereby relieving symptoms. In addition, cognitive behavioral therapy can also help to avoid stress by changing negative thought patterns about the disease, thereby helping the patient to better control the disease. Keep in mind that while irritable bowel syndrome can affect quality of life, it does not destroy the gut. It's wise to learn as much as you can about the condition to better control it, but always consult a doctor before making any major lifestyle changes.