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The NHS estimates one in five people in the UK have suffered or are suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It's thought to affect twice as many women as men and usually first rears its ugly head between the ages of 20 and 30.
It's a difficult condition to live with and many people are undiagnosed. The cause is unknown and there is no definitive cure, making for a frustrating scenario, however studies have uncovered a potential link with genetics.
A recent study looked at links between genetics and the chronic diseases of IBS and migraines.
The study, led by Dr Uluduz of Istanbul University in Turkey, took 107 people with IBS and 53 healthy individuals as a control group. They also looked at 107 people with episodic migraine, and 53 individuals with tension headaches.
They found differences in serotonin levels of the transporter gene and the serotonin receptor 2A gene. All the participants suffering from IBS, migraine and tension headaches had at least one gene different from the healthy control group. Researchers also found that those who experience migraines were twice as likely to have IBS than people with tension headaches.
Past studies have linked IBS to genetics too. Some research has found that IBS patients have a gene mutation that interrupts a sodium channel found in gastrointestinal smooth muscles and another study suggests that IBS tends to run in families.
This points at a genetic link for IBS sufferers and opens up an exciting field of exploration into the currently incurable illness. If faulty shared genes are the common link that causes IBS, it could lead to different treatment strategies in the future. This would be a big step forward in providing relief for sufferers who currently feel there is no effective solution or suitable recovery.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is the condition's full name, but this gives no indication as to how difficult or severe the symptoms can be.
In short, IBS is a common illness that causes issues with the digestive system. Symptoms vary between individuals with some suffering occasional bouts whilst others, they are more frequent. Symptoms can be triggered by stress and certain foods that cause diarrhoea, constipation, cramps and bloating. Sometimes the condition can get so bad people avoid social situations and struggle to work.
The symptoms of IBS differ in individuals but many experience some of the following:
The cause is not yet known - although the suspects are diet, anxiety and genetics.
IBS sufferers are thought to process food in an altered way. Usually the body squeezes and relaxes intestinal muscles to move food through, but IBS may speed up or slow down this process resulting in diarrhoea if it moves too quickly or constipation if it moves too slowly. What causes this process to alter is the unknown quantity.
The suspects are:
As discussed above, science is uncovering genetic links. Faulty genes and family history are under scrutiny.
People suffer from nerve-induced diarrhoea, but many IBS sufferers have experienced a traumatic event in their past, which makes them sensitive to stress.
Because IBS is such a personal illness it's no surprise that food triggers vary enormously. Common ones are alcohol, chocolate, caffeine, crisps, biscuits, fatty and fried foods plus fizzy drinks.
The gut receives signals from the brain to digest food. It's thought some people may be overly sensitive to these signals and their digestive systems over or under-react.
Because there's no cure for IBS, treatments concentrate on relieving symptoms to improve quality of life. Here are some of the treatments.
Many IBS sufferers are asked to keep a food diary to draw a link with food triggers. It's then a case of avoiding these foods. This is an important aspect of treatment and should always be undertaken.
Fibre is important too. If you suffer from IBS, diarrhoea it can help to cut down on insoluble fibre such as bran, cereals seeds, nuts, the skin of fruit and vegetables, and the artificial sweetener Sorbitol.
Constipation may be relieved by increasing soluble fibre such as fruits, root vegetables, oats and barley. Extra water can help too.
Some experts suggest a FODMAP diet, which cuts out carbohydrates that quickly break down in the gut causing gas and wind. It's best to speak to a doctor about a FODMAP diet because it usually entails cutting out some fruits, vegetables, milk, wheat and beans. As these are important, vitamin and mineral packed foods expert advice is required.
Medications can help treat your symptoms, but they will not cure you of IBS. Medicines include laxatives for constipation, antispasmodics for stomach pain, antimotility medication for diarrhoea and some antidepressants that can reduce stomach pain and cramps.
Some sufferers say exercise helps to manage symptoms of IBS. Exercise should be vigorous enough to raise your heart rate for a minimum of 150 minutes a week - this includes cycling or fast walking.
IBS can be triggered by stressful situations so it's important to manage stress levels. Mindfulness and meditation techniques with regular exercise can relieve stress, but you should look at your lifestyle and modify what stresses you the most, such as a job, relationship or a situation that upsets you.
Speak to your doctor if you feel stress is getting on top of you. There are options such as cognitive behavioural therapy, counselling and hypnotherapy that may help.
Some people have claimed probiotics with 'friendly bacteria' help settle IBS symptoms. There's no evidence it works, but it's worth a try if you suffer. Always follow the instructions. The NHS says you should try them for at least four weeks.
IBS is a condition that many people have to deal with, so don't feel you are alone. If you have symptoms of IBS some medical advice will help identify your triggers and work towards reducing them. Until the root cause of IBS is identified and a permanent cure found, the best plan is to keep a food diary to identify and eliminate food triggers, work to reduce stress, and keep your mental health in tip-top condition. If you struggle on your own, join an online support group and keep in regular touch with your doctor.
If you want to learn more about IBS and how to treat the condition effectively, HealthExpress can help and head to your doctor for more information.