Do I have IBS?

Do I have Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (or IBS) is a chronic gastrointestinal problem, which leads to unusual sensitivity and muscle activity.

It is very common, afflicts mainly women and tends to develop ebfore the age of 35.

It is also often referred to as spastic colon, spastic colitis, mucous colitis or nervous stomach. However, IBS should not be mistaken for inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs), such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. IBS is a functional problem, whereby the operation of the bowels may be abnormal, but no structural problems are present.

How the bowel works

It can be helpful to understand the role of the intestine (bowel), in better understanding IBS.

The intestine stretches from an opening in the stomach to the anus (rear end). It plays a major role in digestion, a process in which food is broken down and absorbed (together with water) into the bloodstream. The small intestine absorbs nutrients, whilst the large intestine assimilates moisture from the matter that is leftover and excretes the waste from the anus.

So, partly digested foodstuff normally leaves the stomach and passes into the small intestine and then into the large intestine. The large intestine helps food to flow through with light squeezing motions. However, with IBS, it is believed that the intestines squeeze too hard or not hard enough and cause food to move too quickly or too sluggishly through the gastrointestinal tract.

Types of IBS

As such, there are broadly two types of IBS:

1. In some instances, material inside the bowel doesn’t progress rapidly enough and an excess of fluid is absorbed, leading to constipation – this is called IBS-C.

2. In other cases, the material moves too quickly and the colon doesn’t take up enough liquid, which leads to diarrhoea – this is called IBS-D.  

Those that have problems with IBS seldom openly discuss it. However, studies suggest its likely prevalence in the United Kingdom to be around 17% of the population.

Unfortunately, doctors do not tend to understand why or how IBS comes about. Furthermore, quite a few doctors feel that the complaint doesn’t really exist and is psychosomatic in origin. Having said that, this opinion is now generally rejected by the natural health fraternity. Moreover, it is the most common condition diagnosed by gastroenterologists and one of the most common disorders seen by primary care physicians.

The specific cause, or causes, of IBS are uncertain, but the following factors are likely to contribute to the onset of this condition:

  • stress
  • depression
  • insufficient intake of dietary fibre
  • hypersensitivity to specific hormones
  • food allergies and sensitivities (e.g. to gluten)
  • problems with the way signals are sent between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract
  • poor diet (including diets high in sugar and/or fat)
  • micro-organisms in the gut (including bacteria and parasites)
  • yeasts
  • coeliac disease
  • and medications.

What is a syndrome?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is not classified as a disease. The term “syndrome” may sound alarming, but it’s actually just a broad term used by doctors to describe a group of symptoms.

Although IBS certainly isn’t fatal, its symptoms can drastically impact on quality of life and may even be debilitating.

Certainly, symptoms and severity vary from one person to another (and might change over time). For some, IBS is a chronic (continuous) disorder that characterises daily living. For others, it is a periodic unwelcome visitor. Everybody suffers from an occasional bowel disturbance, but for anyone with IBS, the symptoms are more acute or arise more often.

Whether constant or intermittent, IBS is most often known to cause a mixture of any of the following symptoms: abdominal pain, acid reflux, wind, bloating, fullness, cramping pains, fatigue, severe headaches, passage of mucous, urgency or a a sense of unfinished bowel movements and a change in bowel habits (i.e. constipation and/or diarrhoea).

Clearly, a number of these symptoms are common in other conditions and are rather ambiguous. This explains the frequent difficulty in obtaining a certain diagnosis. More uncommon symptoms include a feeling of sickness and throwing up.

Living with IBS

Unfortunately, there isn’t any known cure for IBS, but it appears that its symptoms can be managed in many different ways. For instance, dietary and lifestyle changes and supporting health supplements. Many people find that high-strength, multi-strain probiotics help with symptoms, along with plant-derived digestive enzymes and high quality dietary fibre.

In contrast, having fatty, processed foods can lead to a tummy upset in virtually anybody. Nonetheless, particular foods and drinks (like greasy burgers, sugar, chocolate, milk products, caffeine and alcohol) are believed to especially aggravate the symptoms of IBS, by (amongst other things) increasing the body’s output of digestive gases and creating an acidic environment.
 
Tension is also believed to increase the motility (the rhythmic contractions) of the intestine that propels food through the gastrointestinal tract and causes abdominal pain and irregular bowel functions.

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Probiotics benefits

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live micro-organisms (often bacteria) that are thought to have a positive effect on the health of the host organism (i.e. our bodies) and, in particular, digestive tract health. They are more commonly referred to as “friendly bacteria” or “good bacteria.”

Most probiotics are bacteria similar to those naturally found in the gut, especially in those of breastfed infants (who have natural protection against many diseases). Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) and bifidobacteria are the most common types of microbes used in probiotic supplements, but certain yeasts and bacilli are also used.

Probiotics are commonly consumed as part of fermented foods with specially added active live cultures, such as in yoghurt, soy yoghurt fermented, unfermented milk, miso, tempeh and some juices and soy beverages or as dietary supplements. In probiotic foods and supplements, the bacteria may have been present originally or added during preparation.

Probiotics are not the same thing as prebiotics, which are non-digestible food ingredients that selectively stimulate the growth and/or activity of beneficial microorganisms already in people’s colons – in other words, provide food for the good bacteria. When probiotics and prebiotics are mixed together, they form a synbiotic.

Benefits of probiotics

The world is full of microorganisms and so are our bodies – in and on the skin, in the gut, and in other orifices. Friendly bacteria are crucial to proper development of the immune system, to protection against microorganisms that could cause disease and to the digestion and absorption of food and nutrients. Each person’s mix of bacteria varies. Interactions between a person and the microorganisms in their body, and among the microorganisms themselves, can be crucial to the person’s health and well-being.

Investigations into the benefits of probiotic therapies suggest a range of potentially beneficial uses.

Managing lactose intolerance
Some people use probiotics to ease symptoms of lactose intolerance, a condition in which the gut lacks the enzyme needed to digest large amounts of the major sugar in milk and which also causes gastrointestinal symptoms. As lactic acid bacteria actively convert lactose into lactic acid, ingestion of certain active strains may help lactose intolerant individuals tolerate more lactose than they would have otherwise.

Lowering cholesterol
Studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of a range of lactic acid bacteria (LAB) in lowering serum cholesterol levels, presumably by breaking down bile in the gut, thus inhibiting its re-absorption (which enters the blood as cholesterol).

Lowering blood pressure
Clinical trials have indicated that consumption of milk fermented with various strains of LAB may result in reductions in blood pressure. It is thought that this is due to the ACE inhibitor-like peptides produced during fermentation.

Improving immune function and preventing infections
There are cells in the digestive tract connected with the immune system. One theory is that if you alter the microorganisms in a person’s intestinal tract (e.g. by introducing probiotic bacteria), you can affect the immune system’s defences.

A 2010 study suggested that the anecdotal benefits of probiotic therapies as beneficial for preventing secondary infections, a common complication of antibiotic therapy, may be because keeping the immune system primed by eating foods enhanced with “good” bacteria may help counteract the negative effects of sickness and antibiotics. It was thought that antibiotics may turn the immune system “off” while probiotics turns it back on “idle”, and more able to quickly react to new infections.

LAB foods and supplements have been shown to aid in the treatment and prevention of acute diarrhoea and in decreasing the severity and duration of rotavirus infections in children and travellers’ diarrhoea in adults.

Helicobacter pylori
LAB are also thought to aid in the treatment of Helicobacter pylori infections (which cause peptic ulcers) in adults, when used in combination with standard medical treatments.

Antibiotic-associated diarrhoea
Antibiotics kill friendly bacteria in the gut along with unfriendly bacteria. Probiotics are sometimes used to try to offset side effects from antibiotics like gas, cramping, or diarrhoea. Antibiotic-associated diarrhoea (AAD) results from an imbalance in the colonic microbiota caused by antibiotic therapy. Probiotic treatment can reduce the incidence and severity of AAD as indicated in several meta-analyses.

Reducing inflammation
LAB and supplements have been found to modulate inflammatory and hypersensitivity responses. Clinical studies suggest that they can prevent reoccurrences of inflammatory bowel disease in adults, as well as improve milk allergies.

Improving mineral absorption
It is thought that probiotic lactobacilli may help correct malabsorption of trace minerals, found particularly in those with diets high in phytate content from whole grains, nuts, and legumes.

Preventing harmful bacterial growth under stress
In a study done to see the effects of stress on intestinal flora, rats that were fed probiotics had little occurrence of harmful bacteria latched onto their intestines compared to rats that were fed sterile water.

Irritable bowel syndrome and colitis
Certain probiotics have been found to improve symptoms of IBS and to be safe in treating ulcerative colitis.

Managing urogenital health
Several in vitro studies have revealed probiotics’ potential in relieving urinary tract infections and bacterial vaginosis.

Other facts about probiotics

Did you know:

  • There are 10x more bacteria in our gut than there are cells in our body and if you gathered together all of your gut bacteria they would weigh approximately 1 kg or 2.2 lb.
  • An imbalance in our gut bacteria can sometimes occur during times of stress.
  • In order to protect us from getting food poisoning, our bodies are designed to stop the bacteria that we eat from getting into our gut. This is one reason why our stomach is very acidic.
  • Probiotics are considered safe for people of all ages unless they have a condition that has harmed their immune system such as cancer or HIV. Specific advice should be sought from a doctor or dietician.

How do probiotics work?

When we consume probiotics they start to compete with bad bacteria and pathogens for space and for food – therefore evicting them from our gut. Probiotics also stimulate our own immune system to enable it to fight infections better, as well as help us to digest fibre from our diet and in doing so they produce acid compounds that keep the lining of our gut healthy.

“Unfriendly” microorganisms (such as disease-causing bacteria, yeasts, fungi and parasites) can upset the balance of bacteria in our bodies. At the start of the 20th century, probiotics were thought to be beneficial to the host by improving its intestinal microbial balance, thus inhibiting pathogens and toxin producing bacteria. Today, specific health effects are being investigated and documented including alleviation of chronic intestinal inflammatory diseases, prevention and treatment of pathogen-induced diarrhoea, urogenital infections and atopic diseases.

Researchers are exploring whether probiotics could halt these unfriendly agents in the first place and/or suppress their growth and activity in conditions like:

  • infectious diarrhoea
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • inflammatory bowel disease (e.g., ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease)
  • infection with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a bacterium that causes most ulcers and many types of chronic stomach inflammation
  • tooth decay and periodontal disease
  • vaginal infections
  • stomach and respiratory infections that children acquire
  • skin infections
  • and many others.

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