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Exactly how common is IBS and how can you treat it effectively

Published : Tuesday April 12, 2016 | Posted in : General Health

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a familiar condition in the UK, especially for women, yet it can be frustrating. For starters, it's so common yet there isn't a definite cure. Doctors are vocal in expressing alterations to lifestyle choices - especially dietary habits - that could help and there are remedies that could provide relief from the often-uncomfortable symptoms, however there is no miracle pill or solution that can stop the cramping; it's just a case of trail and error.

It's IBS Awareness Month every April in the UK, so if you're experiencing a few spasms, have the odd blockage after dairy or simply want to know what all the fuss is about after overhearing a conversation and relate to the symptoms, here is all you need to know about irritable bowel syndrome…

What is IBS?

As you've probably guessed, IBS stands for irritable bowel syndrome that involves the digestive system not performing like it should do. It can often be a long-term or chronic condition for most with so many varying causes, triggers and symptoms.

Numerous individuals with IBS have to experiment and analyse their own habits to discover what triggers the condition for them. It can be long-winded, but necessary if you're to improve your symptoms.

IBS symptoms

Many find certain foods and drinks prompt symptoms such as abdominal pain, abdominal spasms, diarrhoea, bloating and constipation. IBS can also produce bad wind (flatulence) so all-in-all, despite affecting loads of us, it's pretty embarrassing to talk about. This might be the reason you don't exactly hear it yelled from the rooftops, but when you pop in the pharmacy, the pharmacist knows exactly the sort of treatment you need; they probably get a couple of IBS-ers a day!

Common IBS Symptoms
Abdominal Pain Abdominal Spasms
Diarrhoea Bloating
Constipation Flatulence

Some symptoms can be more severe. This includes backache, nausea, pain during sex, incontinence and frequent need to urinate.

IBS tends to come in bouts, which vary in severity depending on the trigger and individual. These can be a few hours, a couple of days or even a couple of weeks.

How common is IBS?

Whilst the primary cause of IBS is often unknown, leading to further ambiguity about the condition, gender plays a surprising prominent role.

If you are a young women in the UK between the age of 20-30 years, then it's pretty common. In fact, the NHS states that you are twice as likely to develop IBS than the males. Considering that estimates suggest one in five of us will develop IBS at some point in our lives, that's a lot of women, and a considerable amount of men too.

Why are women prone to IBS?

There have been hints towards the menstrual cycle being blamed for how common IBS is in women. It would be convenient to blame this week of pain and bleeding on your condition, and a surprising amount of women do suffer from diarrhoea during their time of the month that could be the cause of the connection, however research has shown that the two aren't directly linked despite your period possibly making symptoms worse if they have already appeared.

This study reviewed 179 men and 193 women in terms of gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome. The women in the study were at all stages of the menstrual cycle, which resulted in no clear patterns in terms of IBS symptoms. Whilst it was far more popular to have diarrhoea in females and constipation in males, the study concluded that medical professionals should not be placing your condition solely down to your menstrual cycle if you are a woman.

"You may display symptoms of IBS during your period; this could be prompt slightly by the condition or a matter of coincidence however, frustratingly, there is no clear evidence proving the link."

Another factor to consider is that women are in general far more likely to have problems with their abdominal area. This includes unrelated conditions and diseases such as urinary tract infections, pelvic disorders and incontinence, which could suggest why IBS is more common in women as well. In addition, the sad fact remains that women are far more likely to endure sexual abuse such as rape - or even experience rough consensual sex - that can trigger all sorts of abdominal symptoms, which can increase the numbers of IBS in women in comparison to their male counterparts.

Why do I have IBS?

The exact cause of IBS isn't known (yes, we did say it was a frustrating condition) however there are factors you can identify with.

For starters, let's use our common sense; IRRITABLE BOWEL syndrome. It's a syndrome that IRRIATES THE BOWEL. Not just a hat rack, my friends. But seriously, your gut and general abdominal area has become super sensitive to at least one thing in your life that maybe needs altering or removing. That something is usually food and drink.

Your digestive system isn't squeezing and reacting in the way it should to pass substances through your system. Sounds a bit rough, and it can be, but often symptoms can be manageable or treatments will alleviate them. Basically, your gut is either performing too quickly or too slowly, and your body needs the Goldilocks of digestion to be justtttt right.


This is the most reported cause of IBS, and your doctor may have already advised the fodmap food list to help you pinpoint which food it is causing all the trouble.

Fodmap Diet Piechart

The Fodmap Diet Plan is a good starting point, but with a lot of these foods, eating a small amount will not have much of an effect on your symptoms. IBS symptoms differ with each individual, and keeping a food diary will help you find the certain foods that are a catalyst to your condition.

The Good Foods on the Fodmap The Bad Foods on the Fodmap
Carrots | Tomatoes | Potatoes | Green peas | Sweet potato | Red pepper | Cucumber | Mushrooms Onions | Garlic | Super snap peas | Lentils | Cauliflower | Pumpkin | Asparagus
Banana | Strawberries | Grapes | Kiwi | Blueberries | Cantaloupe | Rhubarb | Lemon | Lime Apples | Pears | Watermelon | Cherries | Raspberries | Blackberries | Peaches | Canned fruits
Fish | Chicken | Beef | Lamb | Eggs Processed meats - Chorizo | packaged ham | burgers | etc
Almond milk | Hazelnut milk | Lactose-free milk | Butter Animal milk (cow, sheep or goat) | Soy milk | Sour cream | Ice cream
Brie | Blue cheese | Mozzarella | Feta | Cheddar Cottage cheese | Mascarpone cheese
Quinoa | Oats | Brown rice and pasta | Gluten-free | Tofu Wheat | Rye | Barley | Chickpeas (Hummus) | Kidney beans | Baked beans
Peanuts | Almonds | Pine nuts | Pumpkin seeds | Seseme seeds | Sunflower seeds | Walnuts Cashews | Pistachios

Sadly, it's the tasty but fatty foods that trigger IBS. You're not going to be a dietary saint the entire time, and small amounts of the bad stuff should suffice without too much trouble, however avoiding chocolate, crisps, biscuits, fried foods and fatty foods could help.

If your IBS symptoms include diarrhoea or loose bowel movements, then this means your digestive system is moving too quickly and you're not absorbing the necessary water from your food, resulting in loose stools. For women taking the contraceptive pill, this could be important, as diarrhoea can reduce the effectiveness of your protection, which is usually a steady 99%.

"If constipation seems to be a recurrent side effect of your IBS, then your digestive system is too slow and too much water is being absorbed. It is possible to experience both symptoms in different bouts."

Your body needs to keep you on your toes, you see. Either way, your gut is playing up, and may even be winding up your brain too telling it the wrong information like Chinese Whispers in the playground. They should really all get along, but that would make life far too simple.


Alcohol can be a massive prompt for IBS so cutting back can instantly help the condition as well as your general health. The DrinkAware app is particularly handy (and free); you can monitor your drinking habits to help you cut back and reduce the risks of excessive alcohol drinking or occasional bingeing. This may also offer you a hint on whether your IBS is directly affected by alcohol by correlating your symptoms to the easy-to-read graphs.

Other drinks that can trigger IBS include fizzy drinks and caffeine (strong coffees in particular).


It has been reported, a common rumour even, that signs of IBS are common within major cities, which certainly offers an explanation in terms of psychological factors such as stress and anxiety.

If you're leading a busy and stressful lifestyle – fulltime job along with a demanding commute commonly associated with the big cities – and you don't give yourself that time to relax, this could be prompting your IBS symptoms.

There are also other more traumatising factors such as abuse during your childhood or a serious illness in the past of which counselling is on offer to help.

Can sex prompt IBS?

Some have spoken about sexual intercourse triggering symptoms, especially for women (don't worry, this usually happens after the sexy time; no bloating or rushing off to the bathroom mid-intercourse. That would certainly kill the mood).

If you think about it, this should come as no surprise; our bits are very close together and we've already established how sensitive the digestive system is. Women are more likely to get IBS and this extreme movement around a confined area can be a trigger for some, however no solid research to back this up has been revealed just yet.

Diagnosing IBS

Mild IBS symptoms and pinpointing triggers means some of us can handle the pesky condition all by ourselves like the strong independent adults we are. Remedies, possibly avoiding cheese (soul-destroying, we know) and keeping yourself relaxed can reduce bouts and the severity of symptoms, as stated above.

If you're not sure it's IBS, then visit your GP for further information. Mention that you've read up on the condition…but you're not entirely sure…and the doctor will be able to perform a few tests. It's important to rule out other conditions that have similar symptoms to ensure you combat IBS successfully. IBS is vague and can be incredibly exasperating to control, but your doctor can help you find a cause.

Once IBS has been all-but confirmed, you can begin to monitor foods and drinks, your mood and time of the month if you're a women to clock any patterns. Whilst the symptoms can be mind-consuming at times, IBS is largely harmless, and the doctor will be happy to advise you on foods, but won't be panicked by your scenario. This may seem annoying during the times where you're running to the toilet or when that kind-hearted commuter thinks your bloating is a baby three months along, offering you a seat but just remember, if your doctor isn't panicking, you don't need to be as well…and you've just got a seat in rush hour.

Secondly, you need to put in the research yourself. This could mean keeping a diary of times when the IBS has erupted into a minor state of emergency. This needn't be difficult and time-consuming; just find a solution that works for you. For example, simply placing a cross in your diary relating to the days where the symptoms appeared, or were particularly bad. You may want to include specific symptoms as well, or factors you have changed that day (for example, having one too many at the pub the day before, or the large bready meal you've eaten an hour before during a celebratory lunch).

Not only will altering your IBS triggers help with symptoms specific to your condition, but often these will have a positive effect on your lifestyle too. For example, cutting down on alcohol, making you chill out or confronting past traumas…

Treating IBS

Treating irritable bowel syndrome depends on the severity of your condition, the symptoms and the triggers personal to you.

Many decide to opt for treatment for IBS as continued symptoms can affect your day-to-day life and lead to haemorrhoids if your back passage is aggravated frequently. Many other discomforting outcomes of IBS is your state of mind. During bouts, you will lack confidence, you may be taking time off work because of the embarrassing nature or miss out on occasions that you're too nervous to attend.

Your diet

Your dietary choices is the first step to understanding IBS, as this is the most common trigger that even medical professionals can agree on. As mentioned, keep a note of any foods and drinks that aggravate or trigger symptoms – maybe accompanied with the type of symptom(s) for clarity. Take a look at the fodmap diet for further information and try to incorporate the following foods advised by the NHS:

  • Fibre fibre fibre! Soluble fibres (SF – our labelling) and insoluble fibre (IF – our labelling) can both help digestion; oats (SF), bananas (SF), apples (SF), root vegetables (SF), barley and rye (SF), wholegrain (IF), brans (IF), nuts (IF) and seeds (IF). For diarrhoea, try increasing soluble fibre, and for constipation, try increasing insoluble fibre. Oats are particularly handy if you suffer from bad and/or excessive flatulence.
  • Maintain a regular diet with reasonable portions at similar times in the day. Keep fruit intake to up to three portions per day to avoid bloating, constipation and diarrhoea. Try not to exceed this (the first time we've ever been told to avoid eating fruit).
  • Cut back on the sugary and fatty snacks and drinks
  • Cutting back on alcohol could help bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhoea.
  • Lowering your caffeine intake and keep hydrated with the advised six-eight glasses of water each day. Could help ease constipation and/or diarrhoea.


Oh, eating well and exercise to combat a condition, how ORIGINAL, but for IBS this is medically advised and doable, with just two and a half hours of activity a week recommended. This is light activity too, no marathon, so try adjust your daily routine to include more running or sign up to a beginner's aerobic class.

The motivation can be low when you feel like you're about to burst, however once you get going, exercise can not only improve symptoms like bloating, but help to take your mind off of the condition too (handy if you happen to be aggravating your IBS with stress and anxiety like a vicious circle).

Medications and Remedies

  • Probiotics – That word you hear on yoghurt adverts teamed with "friendly bacteria". Whilst some of these claims might be hear'say, you can experiment with probiotic products for yourself to see if symptoms improve.
  • Laxatives – If constipation is a regular symptom, begin with a low dose and keep hydrated. Try taking the laxative at night (there are brands out there specifically designed for overnight relief) and even at the weekend if you're nervous about work. You can increase the dose if needed.
  • Antispasmodics – Peppermint falls into this category and is popular amongst the IBS treatment recommendations in both pharmacies and remedy and supplement specialists. They relax your digestive muscles to remove abdominal pain and cramping. Peppermint can come in the form of tablets, capsules, oil and tea (a good replacement if you're cutting back on caffeine).
  • Antimotility - Usually in the form of capsules and tablets from your pharmacy that reduce, prevent and stop diarrhoea. This includes familiar brands such as Imodium. We have a diarrhoea pack available at HealthExpress that can prevent as well as stop diarrhoea.

Chill out

Certain lifestyle factors can be adjusted. For example, could you walk part of your way to work, which will not only give you exercise but means you avoid angry commuters and BO? What about apps…

With the Internet and smartphones come applications galore. Not only can you watch adorable animals doing adorable things (what better way to relax) but apps such as Headspace are free and offer really easy meditating techniques. These are super quick and easily incorporated into your lifestyle, even if you're not the Zen type of human. Yoga, Pilates and tai chi, strolling around for an hour on your lunch break and swimming have all been reported to reduce stress as well.

If meditating or counselling really isn't your cuppa - nor accessible for you - or you're really not that kitten gif sort of person (that's absolutely fine, no-one is judging you, promise), then find your own way to relax. Start a hobby; join a sports team, take up painting, cookery classes, search for 'Stress Relief' in Spotify and simply sit there. The possibilities are endless.

IBS is the enigma of condition, but once you find those pesky foods that clog you up, a routine that gives you diarrhoea or a drink that makes you feel less like a balloon, it's like an EUREKA sort of moment. BAM, HAH! TAKE THAT! Ticking off factors of the IBS Bingo isn't exactly a quick solution, but far more successful in the long run.

If you have any further information on irritable bowel syndrome, or would like us to research specifics regarding the condition, you can message us in the comments below.

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