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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How do I balance my gut flora?

Do I have dysbiosis?

Dysbiosis refers to a microbial imbalance on or within the body; in other words, an imbalance of good versus bad bacteria.

It most often occurs in the digestive tract (leading to unpleasant symptoms, such as bloating, excessive wind, IBS symptoms etc). However, it can also present on any exposed surface or mucous membrane, such as in the vagina, lungs, nose, sinuses, ears, nails or eyes.

For the purposes of this post, we will focus on intestinal dysbiosis, where digestion is compromised.

Toxic bowels and overall declining health can often be caused by diminishing levels of friendly bowel flora, coupled with and caused by the overgrowth of harmful bacteria and parasites, such as Candida albicans.

Bacterial enzymes can deactivate digestive enzymes in the gut (essential for the proper digestion of food and absorption of nutrients) and convert human bile or components of food into chemicals, which promote the development of diseases. Some by-products of bacterial enzyme activity, like ammonia, also hinder normal brain function and various other essential processes in the body. These by-products, when absorbed, need to be processed by the liver, placing it under additional strain.

What can cause this imbalance?

An imbalance in bowel flora can be caused by the proliferation of pathogenic parasites, yeast and/or bacteria and can have any number of specific causes. For example:

  • stress
  • illness
  • poor digestion (including low levels of digestive enzymes, constipation and other bowel disorders)
  • chemical exposure
  • poor diet
  • overuse of medication (including antibiotics and birth control pills)
  • mercury, for instance, in dental amalgams, may also have a role to play. It is thought that mercury can cause mutations in intestinal bacteria. These bacteria (either directly or indirectly) can then lead to the formation of small holes in the gut lining, which in turn has the potential to lead to dysbiosis and “leaky gut syndrome”.   

Dysbiosis is also often an underlying condition in people who are generally unwell, but is either misdiagnosed, not diagnosed at all or simply dismissed as a non-existent condition. However, natural health experts are generally in agreement that the health of your gut has a direct impact on your overall health. How can it not, when your digestive tract is where you take in nutrients and eliminate waste which, if left in the body too long, can become toxic and a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.

As such, dysbiosis has been associated with a number of health conditions, such as inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs) (e.g. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), chronic fatigue syndrome, yeast infections and rheumatoid arthritis.

How do you know if your intestines are healthy?

If you have intestinal dysbiosis, you are likely to experience one or more of the following signs:

  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • intestinal upsets
  • stomach ache
  • bloating
  • cramping
  • wind
  • heartburn
  • burping
  • constipation
  • and/or diarrhoea. 

One of the main reasons for mis- or non-diagnosis of this condition is that these symptoms fit with many other conditions. For example, Candida albicans (also known as “the yeast syndrome”). This is because Candida is actually a form of dysbiosis.

Dysbiosis is just an umbrealla term, which reflects the fact that yeast organisms aren’t the only intestinal parasites that can cause these symptoms. In fact, intestinal bacteria or viruses may be the primary cause of some of these illnesses, not yeast. However, the most serious dysbiosis cases are likely to involve both yeast and harmful bacteria in the intestines.

How do you reset your gut?

It is perfectly achievable to re-balance your bowel flora, with careful attention to your diet (including supplementation) and lifestyle.

However, it should be noted that after suffering intestinal diseases, the body may be vulnerable to other infections, both bacterial and viral. As such, treatment of dysbiosis would be sensible as part of any overarching treatment of intestinal infections.

One suggested approach is to remove all sources of carbohydrates from the diet, as the molecular structure of these foods is too large for direct entry into the bloodstream.

When diseased intestines are inflamed from the effects of dysbiosis, they cannot break down the molecules that are too large to be transported across the small intestinal surface into the bloodstream. Instead of entering the bloodstream, the undigested starch and sugar molecules serve as a continual source of food for bacteria and fungi. By removing starches and sugars, dysbiosis may possibly be corrected.

However, it is important not to make any drastic dietary changes (such as the complete elimination of a food group) without first consulting a nutritionist, dietitian or GP.

It is also recommended to “crowd out” bad bacteria and other pathogens, by taking in high amounts of friendly bacteria in the form of probiotic supplements. While probiotic foods can certainly be beneficial as part of the revised diet, these probiotics do not tend to colonise the digestive tract (unlike probiotic supplements, which do). It is important to increase numbers of healthy bowel flora for the long-term; not just during the process of digestion.

As such, high-strength multi-strain probiotics can offer support.

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Why am I always bloated?

The most common causes of bloating

Stomach bloating is a common condition that affects as many as 1 in 5 people. While it’s most commonly associated with women, men can be just as prone.

Bloating can be very unpleasant, with the stomach swelling up like a balloon and making it difficult to wear tight-fitting clothes or uncomfortable to carry out normal daily activities. Excessive wind may also be present, adding to the sense of embarrassment.

But what causes bloating? If there’s no other bowel disturbance (like diarrhoea or constipation), underlying disease is unlikely – although, if in doubt, always visit your GP.

Bloating is most often caused by gas in the bowel, the volume and odour of which can depend on a number of factors, including:

  • diet
  • how much air you swallow
  • and the mix of bacteria in your gut.

Below are listed some of the most common causes of bloating, many of which are connected or inter-dependent.

Did you know?

We produce up to four pints of gas a day and release it by either burping or passing wind (14 times per day on average).

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Previously known as “mucous colitis” and “spastic colitis”, IBS involves the colon being in spasm. The two main symptoms are abdominal pain / bloating and altered bowel habits. The pain is usually relieved on passing stool or wind. Diarrhoea with watery stools on wakiing in the morning may alternate with constipation. It is often accompanied with the sensation that the bowel is incompletely emptied and excessive flatulence. IBS is often linked to emotional factors (such as stress) rather than allergies / intolerances (although it is thought that cow’s milk and antigens in beef can precipitate the condition), with around one-third of cases being linked to diet. Women are more susceptible than men.

Bowel disease

Bloating is one of the symptoms of an inflamed bowel, which can be caused by a wide variety of conditions and diseases, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, as well as severe food sensitivity (as is seen with coeliac disease for example – an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten intake).

Poor digestion

All too often, people eat their food too quickly because they are stressed, in a hurry or on the go etc. This is a bad start. Hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes are secreted in the stomach in order to digest protein. Stress inhibits all enzyme secretion and the levels of hydrochloric acid in the stomach decline as we get older. As a result, many people routinely take antacids and other stomach acid blockers. These people are unlikely to be digesting protein properly and may therefore experience abdominal bloating, reflux and burping.

In the small intestine, bile from the liver, pancreatic juices and enzymes secreted by the intestinal lining act to digest food. Once again, stress, poor diet and nutritional deficiencies can all impair enzyme production which can in turn cause bloating of the stomach, wind and cramps.

Constipation

Constipation can have a number of underlying causes, but if food is only partially digested (e.g. because there has been a lack of digestive enzymes) and that food reaches the colon, it can putrefy and ferment. The problem is compounded if there is a lack of fibre and water in the diet.

The longer food sits in the bowel, the longer toxins inside your intestines are in contact with the intestinal wall and gas-forming bacteria have to work, meaning more gas can be formed.

Food allergy / intolerance

Any food that we are allergic or intolerant to acts like a poison in our bodies. In the majority of cases (+-95%), food allergies develop over time, so that a food that you once tolerated well might now be making you ill.

If our digestion is poor, there is an imbalance of gut flora (dysbiosis) or we have nutritional deficiencies, we may develop what is known as “leaky gut syndrome”. The intestinal lining can become more permeable than it should be, allowing toxins and partially digested food molecules to enter the bloodstream. This challenges the immune system and, over time, may contribute to food intolerances and/or allergies that can produce wide-ranging symptoms (including bloating, fluid retention, IBS, weight gain, cravings and fatigue).

Eating foods that you are allergic / intolerant to can create a lot of inflammation in the body, weakening your immune system. If you continue to eat these foods, your body will try to dilute them to minimise their harmful effects – this congests your lymphatic system, which can leave you looking bloated and puffy.

Dysbiosis

It’s estimated that there are more than 500 different species of bacteria present in the human gut in concentrations of between 100 billion to 1 trillion microbes per gram. This amounts to around 95% of the total number of cells in the human body.

The friendly bacteria in the stomach and intestines can quite easily become unbalanced (dysbiosis), making the body more vulnerable to yeast overgrowth (Candida), fungi, parasites and harmful bacteria. Poorly digested food, a high sugar diet and medication (like antibiotics) can all alter the intestinal pH, destroy good bacteria and then lead to bloating.

Beat the bloat with a healthy diet

A diet packed with fresh, enzyme-rich raw foods, fruit and vegetables, quality dietary fibre and fermented foods; low in saturated fats, salt and sugar; and with plenty of pure water, coupled with an active lifestyle, is the best way to keep your digestive system healthy and therefore beat the bloat.

You can also help to ensure healthy bowel function by:

  • eating slowly and chewing well (to avoid fermentation, gas formation and bloating)
  • eating only when calm and relaxed (to encourage the secretion of digestive enzymes).

When increasing the level of fibre in your diet, be sure to opt for naturally occurring fibre that is part of a whole food (e.g. in grains, fruit and vegetables etc). Try to avoid extracted bran, which is can have an irritant action on delicate membranes in the gut, leaving them open to inflammation (which will only aggravate bloating).

Also be sure to increase your water intake accordingly, otherwise any constipation could be worsened.

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