Since I started working for The IBS Network charity over a year ago, I’ve lost count of the number of times that people have told me that they, or someone they know has Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). With around 12 million people, or 10-20% of the UK population estimated to have IBS, this could be true but I’m pretty sure that not all of these people have actually been properly diagnosed by their GP. So, with the help of our Medical Advisers’ expertise, I thought I would dispel any myths surrounding the condition, and move another step towards breaking the ‘poo taboo!’

Have you got IBS?

Many people suffer from a stomach grumble now and again, especially when under stress or after eating certain foods. The gut is often referred to as the ‘second brain’ as the link between the mind and gut can be so strong, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they have IBS.

If you answer yes to all of the following, the chances are you may have IBS:

  • Do you have frequent episodes of abdominal cramping or bloating?
  • Are your bowels often upset either with constipation or diarrhoea?
  • Have you had this problem for more than six months?
  • Can your doctor find no other cause for your symptoms?

With wide variations in symptoms from person to person, diagnosis is often a difficult and lengthy process. However, your doctor will be able to provide a proper diagnosis and rule out any other conditions.

 So, what actually is IBS?

IBS is a long-standing illness consisting of frequent abdominal discomfort and bowel symptoms which cannot be explained by any other disease. Symptoms can be complex and conflicting and include one or a combination of constipation, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps and pain, bloating, changes in bowel movement, and frustrated defaecation. Less common symptoms can also include backache, headaches and depression.

Often, there is no specific cause and no single effective treatment for IBS. Some people who have had gastroenteritis may be left with IBS. A course of powerful antibiotics to treat other serious conditions can severely deplete the gut microbiome, resulting in IBS, while others develop post-traumatic IBS after a particular life change or event. Most people who have the condition, will suffer from a sensitive gut which can trigger their symptoms.

Managing IBS

In a world where a quick fix is often sought, this isn’t always possible when treating and managing IBS. Everyone’s condition is unique to them, with different triggers and symptoms, depending on the individual. The high depth of knowledge and understanding possessed by many people with IBS is therefore not surprising, as they seek to learn about their own condition. The IBS Network charity provides a wealth of information, advice and support to help people self-manage their IBS symptoms.

To understand IBS, it is important to distinguish between which factors may sensitise the gut and cause the illness, and what then might trigger the symptoms, such as diet, stressful situations and previous trauma, anxiety, mood or lifestyle changes. The Self-care programme available for members of The IBS Network is a really useful tool to allow users to find out how their IBS responds to certain changes in their lives. The online symptom tracker enables members to plot how their illness feels on any given day and visualise any patterns that may emerge over time.

Taking IBS seriously

In a culture where talking about your daily ablutions can still be frowned upon, many of our members feel unable to talk openly about their IBS symptoms and the debilitating effect it has on both their personal and working lives. By raising awareness of IBS and gut health, providing medical advice to those who need it and rolling out new support groups across the UK, The IBS Network Charity is moving closer to breaking the ‘poo taboo’.

About the author

Jo Hutchinson is the Communication Manager at The IBS Network, the national charity which supports people living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

You can read more blogs related to IBS and gut health here.