As many as one in five people in the UK suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). It affects roughly twice as many women as men and is likely to begin between the ages of 20 and 30. Despite being one of the most common complaints of the digestive system, its exact cause remains unknown.
If you suffer from IBS, read on to discover the symptoms, treatment and lifestyle changes that can help.
The most common symptom of IBS is abdominal pain or discomfort, often in the form of bloating, wind or stomach cramps, which can be made worse by eating.
Abdominal pain may be coupled with disturbed bowel functions - constipation, diarrhoea or both. There is often a feeling of not having been able to complete a bowel movement. Other symptoms include passing mucus, nausea and vomiting.
IBS is a chronic (long-term) condition and symptoms can fluctuate - there may be times when it flares up, and times when you experience no symptoms at all.
Although IBS poses no immediate danger to health, some people experience severe pain. The impact this has on their quality of life can also make them more prone to depression.
Unfortunately there is no cure for IBS but lifestyle changes can be effective in managing it, and medicines such an anti-diarrhoea treatments and laxatives can help.
Anti-spasmodic medication can be prescribed to deal with abdominal pain and cramps – as can anti-depressants (visit the NHS for more information).
If you suffer from IBS for more than a year your doctor may refer you for psychological therapies, which have been shown to be effective.
You may find it helps to eat smaller meals and drink plenty of fluids (but no more than three cups of tea or coffee a day).
If you have constipation, eating more soluble fibre can help - things like oats, barley, root vegetables and fruit. If you suffer with diarrhoea, eating more insoluble fibre is advised - so you'll be stocking up on wholegrain bread, nuts, seeds, bran and cereals.
It can be useful to keep a food diary to keep track of which foods aggravate your condition. If you wish to exclude problem foods from your diet, check out 4Food's recipe section on special diets.
Some people find probiotic dietary supplements help, but there is no firm medical evidence for this. As stress is a trigger for many people, taking time out to relax and exercise is advised.
If you think you may have IBS it's important to see a doctor – as more serious complaints will need to be ruled out.