Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

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A diagram of the lower gastrointestinal tract, with the stomach, small intestine and colon labelled.

It's a pain in the backside!

It does not, as the name suggests, affect only the bowel, but the whole digestive system. Primary symptoms are diarrhoea, constipation, gastric reflux, excess wind, indigestion, stomach cramps, nausea or any combination thereof. This is a personal account of the illness:

Unfortunately, as this syndrome1 has such wide-ranging symptoms, many non-specific digestive ailments tends to get labelled as IBS, and many more serious illnesses get overlooked. The consequences of this can be devastating: a friend of mine died of stomach cancer that was originally misdiagnosed as IBS.

The causes of the syndrome are unknown. It is very obvious that stress has an effect on the severity of attacks but whether it is causal I do not know. I do, however, firmly believe that I first developed the syndrome in my late teens when I decided that the only way for me to lose weight was to eat only one meal a day. After ten years, the combination of my diet and the fact that I was a smoker, a vegetarian and had a stressful job, meant that I ended up becoming depressed. I barely had the energy to crawl back into bed and was taking so much time off work that I am surprised I wasn't sacked. Perhaps it's a case of IBS being a symptom of modern life.

There is no cure. Little help is gained by swallowing medicines and pills to combat the symptoms. Instead an effort should be made to identify the triggers. Management of the syndrome can be achieved but the methods for this vary from person to person. I would never recommend undertaking any treatment without consulting a nutritionist at your local hospital and you should avoid any diet where expensive pills are prescribed as part of the treatment. Personally, I manage my diet by excluding all brassicas2, nuts, seeds, wholegrains, peas, beans and reducing my lactose intake. For the rest of my life I will have to consider the effect of what I eat before I eat it, which for a vegetarian with tomato allergies can make eating out very awkward indeed.

If you suspect you have IBS, consult your doctor and insist that he carry out tests to rule out other organic diseases. If he/she is unsympathetic then change your doctor. Be aware that ovarian cancer, bowel cancer and stomach cancer, amongst others, can have the same symptoms. Don't let anyone put your life in danger by dismissing your symptoms as trivial. IBS is not life threatening in itself but it can have a serious effect on the quality of your life if you do nothing about it.

1IBS is a syndrome rather than a disease. A syndrome is a collection of symptoms (things people complain of) or signs (which can be physical, mental, radiological or biochemical, etc) which can be caused by a disease or diseases. A disease is usually regarded as a single pathology which may be caused by an organism, dysfunction or genetic problem. A single disease cannot always be implicated in many of the known syndromes such as in IBS.2Which are green-leafed vegetables within the cabbage family, such as Brussels sprouts, swedes, and mustard, for example.

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