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Spot the signs & symptoms of IBS – plus why women are more likely to suffer than men

Spot the signs & symptoms of IBS - plus why women are more likely to suffer than men MAIN

Do you suffer from bloating and excessive wind? These are common symptoms of IBS. Dr Raj Arora reveals how to spot the signs and symptoms, plus why women are more likely to suffer than men 

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is common long-term functional disorder of the digestive system. In fact, a staggering one third of the UK population experience symptoms of IBS. The condition often spans through one’s lifetime but the symptoms can change over time.

During digestion, the bowel moves it’s contents along the digestive tract, it does through rhythmic muscle movements. In IBS, there are some changes in how the bowel reacts to it’s contents. There may be muscle spasms instead of rhythmic movements leading to more discomfort as the body digests food.

a staggering one third of the UK population experience symptoms of IBS

It is not clear exactly what causes IBS and there may be a number of reasons why one may develop IBS. It is thought that IBS can develop after a severe bout of gastroenteritis in some people. For others certain foods, stress and potentially an overgrowth of gut bacteria may be triggers for IBS.

What are the common symptoms of IBS?

Although IBS symptoms are generally mild for most people it is important to know that the pain, discomfort and other associated symptoms can be debilitating for some people.

  • Abdominal pain/discomfort/cramps
  • Altered bowel habits – diarrhea, constipation or for some people alternating bouts of both
  • Abdominal bloating/swelling
  • Excessive wind (flatulence)
  • Sudden urgency to open bowels (occasionally)
  • Mucus in the stool
  • Problems passing urine
  • Lack of energy
  • Nausea

One of the most common symptoms is crampy abdominal pain that fluctuates with bowel movements. Typically abdomindal discomfort eases after opening bowels. Abdominal bloating may also be worse after eating certain foods. Diet has a key role to play in most people with symptoms of IBS.

READ MORE: Weight gain? IBS? Nutritionist reveals why your cortisol levels may be to blame


How is IBS treated?

IBS is a complex motility and sensory disorder, understanding this is key to managing the symptoms. Treatments will depend on symptom severity but generally the following management plans are followed

#1 Diet management

Your GP and dietician can help formulate a diet plan to reduce IBS symptoms. This usually includes removing foods that may be obviously triggering your symptoms – such as spicy food. If eliminating triggers alone does not settle down symptoms then input from a dietician can be helpful.

Usually a low FODMAP diet is recommended. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. These are short chain carbohydrates that are absorbed poorly by the small intestine.

Normally bacteria in your gut can break down these sugars and use them as an energy source. In those with digestive problems this can lead to digestive stress and symptoms of IBS.

short chain carbohydrates that are absorbed poorly by the small intestine

Low Fodmap foods include items such as: eggs and meat, almond milk, grains – oats, rice and quinoa, certain vegetables such as (eggplants, potato, cucumbers) and certain fruits (grapes, oranges and strawberries).

There is an extensive list and your dietician can run through this with you. Essentially a low FODMAP diet will restrict certain food groups. It is therefore designed to be used in the short term (To identify triggers) and should be carried out under the guidance of a dietician.

READ MORE: Got a bloated stomach again? Here’s the REAL reason


#2 Eliminating Triggers

Foods such as spicy food or high FODMAP food may trigger off symptoms. Other triggers can include stress, lack of exercise and lack of sleep so it is important to try and reduce these as much as possible.

#3 Medication

GP can prescribe medications to help ease symptoms, such as drugs to reduce spasm which have been used safely for many years and other medications including pain relief medications and laxatives.

New drugs to tackle IBS are being developed

New drugs to tackle IBS are being developed and more research is being carried out in this area so hopefully in the future we will have more targeted medications to offer.

#4 Other therapies

For some people hypnotherapy (gut directed) can be helpful. Your GP can also advise on therapies such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and counselling for those who have an impact on their mood and daily activities. Meditation and mindfulness have also been suggested to help symptoms.

READ MORE: Mental health & gut health: experts explain the link between your brain and your gut


Navigating IBS as a woman

While anyone can develop IBS – it is thought to be more common in women (assigned female at birth) than men.

A study by BUPA found that women account for around 20 per cent of the population suffering with IBS compared to 10 per cent that have it overall.

IBS can sometimes cause different symptoms in women compared to men. In particular, IBS symptoms can get worse for women during their menstrual cycle.

women account for around 20 per cent of the population suffering with IBS

IBS with constipation is also more prevalent among women than men. Studies have also shown that women with IBS have a higher prevalence of other gynaecological disorders, such as painful periods and PMS (pre menstrual syndrome).

What can women suffering with IBS symptoms do?

In addition to the management suggested above, it is important for women to recognize when their symptoms are flaring up with regards to their menstrual cycle as additional support may be necessary.

Women can reach out to their GP for help with pre-menstrual symptoms, painful periods and if they have worsening of their IBS symptoms (such as constipation).

For some women, pregnancy can also result in a flare up of their IBS symptoms. This may be due to the fact that progesterone (pregnancy hormone) rises in pregnancy and can cause the gut muscle to relax resulting in slow motility (and digestion).

pregnancy can also result in a flare up of their IBS symptoms

For those suffering with IBS this may exacerbate symptoms of bloating, craming and constipation.

This can be managed by some conservative changes such as:

  • Increasing dietary fibre – fruits, vegetables and grains
  • Reduction of FODMAPS (gas- producing foods) such as beans, cabbage, legumes, broccoli and lentils to reduce abdominal discomfort
  • Relaxation therapies – mindfulness/meditation amongst others

The first step to managing any chronic condition is education and the power to make informed decisions to manage your condition. This should be done in partnership with your GP and health care professionals to help manage your IBS symptoms.

dr raj arora headshot

Dr Raj Arora is a GP, the founder of @thefacebible and one of the UK’s leading medical educators. Her passion lies in mental health awareness, women’s health and skin care.

As a female GP, Dr Raj Arora has always been passionate about educating other women with regarding to women’s health and using her Instagram platform @dr_rajarora to educate, inform, empower and inspire her followers.

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