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Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome or IBS is a condition that affects the lower bowel or colon and it’s quite common, affecting around 20% of Australians.

While it can cause distress and discomfort, it may be a sign of a more serious illness.

The most common symptoms are:

  • Abdominal pain or cramping that is often relieved by passing wind or going to the toilet
  • Diarrhoea and constipation, sometimes alternating between the two
  • A feeling that the bowels are not fully emptied after passing a stool
  • Abdominal bloating
  • White mucus present in the stools
  • Nausea

What causes IBS?

The exact cause of IBS is not known, but it’s believed that those who suffer it have very sensitive bowels that are easily upset.

What is also known is that external factors such as changes of routine, emotional stress, infection and diet can trigger an attack. For example:

  • Infection. A bout of gastroenteritis can trigger IBS symptom even after the offending bacteria or virus has been eliminated. Up to 25 per cent of IBS may be due to this problem.
  • Food intolerance. Impaired absorption of lactose, a sugar found in dairy foods and processed foods is a very common trigger for IBS. Fructose, another type of sugar commonly found in syrups is also known to trigger IBS symptoms.
  • Low-fibre diets can increase the likelihood of constipation and trigger IBS
  • Anxiety or stress can affect the nerves of the bowel in susceptible people, triggering an IBS attack
  • Medicines. Some medicines, such as antibiotics, antacids and painkillers can lead to constipation or diarrhoea.

How is IBS diagnosed?

Your healthcare professional is the best to provide diagnostic advice, and he or she will probably want to ensure that your symptoms aren’t caused by something else (eg an autoimmune disorder, gluten intolerance or coeliac disease). 

Diagnosis methods may include:

  • A full medical check-up
  • Blood tests
  • Stool (poo) tests
  • Through investigation of the bowel using a tube fitted with a camera (colonoscopy)

How is IBS treated or managed?

There is currently no ‘cure’ for IBS. It is usually managed by trying to identify triggers (everyone is different) and avoiding those triggers as much as possible, although some medications may help relieve symptoms

From a dietary point of view, the Dieticians Association of Australia recommends the following: 

  • Eat more fibre-containing foods
  • Eat less gas-producing foods such as:
    • Onion
    • Cabbage and brussel sprouts
    • Dried beans and lentils
    • Cauliflower
  • Eating less foods with lactose (milk sugar) such as:
    • Milk
    • Ice-cream
    • Some yoghurts
  • Drinking less alcohol
  • Having less food and drinks with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sorbitol and manitol. 

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