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IBS. Also known as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. For those of us who suffer with it, it can be a lifetime struggle learning how to manage IBS. Doctors like to brush us off with the ‘you have to learn to live with it,’ statement and there is no cure. But we can learn to manage it. We can still live quality lives, enjoying time with friends and family, go to work and eat out. But how do we get there?
I have suffered from IBS since 2007. It started as the odd ‘upset tummy,’ and progressed over several years to an almost daily struggle with diarrhoea, agonising cramps, lack of concentration and a severe loss of weight. Many trips to my GP and other doctors yielded many diagnoses, from depression to coeliac disease to an eventual diagnosis of IBS.
I went to a gastroenterologist, had blood tests, stool tests, a colonoscopy, an endoscopy, and MRI. I visited a herbalist and nutritional therapist and had countless different medications, herbs and supplements before I was finally diagnosed and given the correct path to follow.
The biggest problem with IBS is that there is seemingly no rhyme or reason for it to start, and there is no real test that can be done to prove you have it. You first have to rule out that you have anything else, and then it seems, out of desperation, the doctor will tell you it must be IBS.
My second trip to the gastroenterologist ended with me seeing an Indian locum doctor who sat with me for over an hour, taking a complete medical and psychological history, talking through things I have been through and finally deduced that I had IBS that was caused by my anxiety. He explained to me how the stomach is kind of like a ‘second brain,’ and so what happens in the mind, is often repeated in the digestive system.
He prescribed me amitriptyline and suggested I talk to my GP about getting help for my anxiety. This was the first time I had felt heard, it was now 2015.
In this post, I would like to discuss how you can find out if you have IBS, the symptoms to look out for, what it can be caused by, what to do if you think you have IBS and possible treatments. You can manage it, but it’s not easy and it’s a long road for most of us.
What is IBS?
IBS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome affects millions of people all over the world. It is a chronic illness that affects the colon and bowel of the sufferer. It can affect both men, and women as well as children. Although it is not a life-threatening illness and does not lead to things like cancer, it can be debilitating and severely affect the life of sufferers. It is characterised by changes in bowel movement, pain and often, weight loss.
What are the symptoms of IBS?
Symptoms vary from person to person, but the most common ones are:
- Pain in the abdomen
- Bloating and gas
Although men and women both suffer the same symptoms, women often get symptoms around the menstrual cycle and it can get worse or better around menopause. Men are less likely to report their symptoms or get help for it.
What causes IBS?
It is extremely difficult to come up with the answer to this question as every person can be ‘triggered’ by something different. For me, it is mostly my anxiety that sets off my IBS. However, I do have a few food triggers, such as dairy, red meat, pork, and an excess of garlic or legumes. Lack of sleep will upset my digestive system, and I usually suffer around my period.
For others, it’s all about food. Spicy foods, wheat, sugars and more can cause a reaction. So there is no ‘one size fits all’ cause. Which is why it is also really difficult to determine a treatment for it too.
How to manage IBS with home remedies and treatments
With the above in mind, it makes sense to first figure out what your triggers are. By keeping my anxiety in check, I have learnt how to manage IBS quite well. I switched to a vegan diet, so eliminated most of my food triggers. I try to get at least 8 hours of good, restful sleep too. There isn’t a lot I can do about the problems I have around my period, so I make sure to take a good probiotic during this time to put back the good bacteria that I lose during a flair up.
So here are the steps I suggest in learning how to manage IBS:
- Figure out what your triggers are. The easiest way to do this is to keep a journal. By tracking your diet, exercise, sleep and mood, you should start to see a pattern.
- Once you know what sets your IBS off, start to work through each trigger one by one until you get to a point where you feel an improvement.
- For anxiety, speak to you GP or a herbalist to help you determine if you need therapy or supplements to ease it. Food triggers can be eased by cutting down or eliminating those foods. Try to get a decent amount of good quality sleep if you find that tiredness makes you feel worse. And be sure to put back what you lose with a good probiotic.
- Keep tracking your progress in your journal, so that you can see when you are getting better. I know that when I’m having a bad flare-up, it can feel like I’m always suffering, but looking back through my journal helps me gain perspective. I now suffer a flare-up maybe once every couple of months, (aside from my period flair up) as opposed to every day, so it helps to realise that I have actually improved.
- If you find that nothing is helping or that you have no real triggers, it would be beneficial to ask your GP to refer you to a gastroenterologist and get an official diagnosis. IBS has very similar symptoms to some other digestive disorders such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and coeliac disease. These need to treated with medication.
If you need some home remedies and treatments for your flare-ups, this is what has worked for me over the years:
- Buscopan. This is an anti-spasmodic, over-the-counter medication that can help to calm your pain and ease the constant trips to the bathroom. Of all the over-the-counter medications I have tried, this one is the best.
- Hot water bottle. Place a hot water bottle, in a cover, either on your stomach or behind your back. The heat can help to relieve spasms and ease the pain.
- Kneeling. Kneel down and curl your body in on itself so that your stomach and chest are touching your legs. While not the most comfortable of positions to maintain, it eases the tension on your intestines and can help to relieve the pain.
- Herbal tea. Peppermint is known to aid digestion and so can be a good tea to drink daily. Or you can try mixing Peppermint, Fennel and Camomile together; a couple of these a day can keep your pain away, or at least manageable.
- I do not recommend taking Immodium for diarrhoea. I used to take it on a daily basis, especially when I was going to meetings so that I wouldn’t have to keep running to the bathroom. The problem with this is that it effectively causes a blockage which will eventually leave you spending hours on the loo while your body tries to get rid of what you’ve stored. It is agonising and your body will get used to having the Immodium causing you to need more to make it effective. It makes for a traumatic and vicious cycle!
The most important thing to understand when learning how to manage IBS is that it is not life-threatening and doesn’t lead to anything dangerous. However, it can affect your quality of life so learning to manage it is essential. You are not alone. Millions of us suffer from this and many of us have learnt to deal with it so that we can live a good quality of life. But don’t suffer in silence. Speak to a professional who can help you. Don’t take no for an answer or allow them to brush you off. It took years and many trips to many professionals to finally get my diagnosis straight; and start to learn how to cope. You can learn how to manage IBS, but perseverance is key!
- IBS can affect anyone
- You need to work out what your triggers are to learn how to manage it
- It is not life-threatening but does have an effect on the quality of our lives
- You can learn to manage it and improve your life
Do you have IBS? How do you manage it? Let me know in the comments below!