Once food has entered our digestive system it is moved along by something called peristalsis, where the muscles of our intestines work together in a series of rhythmic contractions to move food through the whole of our digestive system.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is when the intestine muscles go into spasm and cause these contractions to become uncoordinated, thereby upsetting the natural flow of food and starting a series of digestive problems, including constipation.
IBS can be hard to diagnose as tests often do not show any actual physical abnormality, and there is no one single cause either so for many IBS patients it can often be a case of trial and error trying to determine what is causing their discomfort, or their symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea and constipation.
Is there a connection between IBS and constipation?
Having constipation with IBS is really quite common because of the effect that IBS has on our peristalsis, as mentioned above. Any upset in our natural rhythm of the movement of food is likely to cause a blockage or build-up of food matter within the intestines that thus leads to constipation and an inability to pass food effectively out of the body.
The good news is that changes to your diet can be highly effective for managing and easing constipation caused by IBS.
First, however, it is important to ask what has caused your IBS.
So what can be the cause of IBS?
Unfortunately, the exact cause of IBS has yet to be found and it would appear that this varies from person to person. Some believe it is an inflammatory condition within the lining of the intestines, whilst others put it down to a specific agent from a viral or parasitic infection, to overuse of antibiotics through to a whole host of foods.
Stress is very common in IBS patients though whether it’s caused by influences such as work or family or even from the constant worry about living with their IBS symptoms, which is in itself a vicious circle.
When it comes to food though, the most common culprits are often intolerance to a particular food or food group such as wheat or lactose. A food intolerance means that you do not have the specific digestive enzyme within your gut to breakdown that specific food - for example, lactase is the enzyme required to break down lactose (found in dairy products such as milk and yoghurt).
There is also a growing number of IBS patients who are finding relief by avoiding certain foods that appear in something called the FODMAPs diet, an acronym to describe a collection of short-chain carbohydrates found in common, everyday foods.
So what are the symptoms?
The symptoms of IBS can vary greatly from patient to patient both in severity and frequency. Some patients may only suffer from one particular symptom compared to others who have several.
It is quite common for IBS symptoms to flare-up after eating and, on average, they will last for around two to four days, after which they calm down or may even disappear temporarily.
Physical symptoms include:
- Constipation, diarrhoea or alternating bouts of both over the course of several months, particularly after meals.
- Stomach cramps which can be relieved by a bowel movement
- Mucus within the stools
- Bloating and swelling of the stomach
- Excessive wind (flatulence)
- A feeling of needing to empty your bowels or that you have not fully emptied even if you have just been to the toilet
Please note, if at any time you see blood in your stools, continual abdominal pain or have lost weight unintentionally then you must go and see you doctor.
Dietary changes that can help your IBS?
Sadly IBS can often be a condition that many just have to learn to live with which is frustrating and in extremes cases can cause anxiety and depression. The good news is there are some natural remedies and changes to your diet that may well help and improve your IBS.
Fibre in particular is key especially if you suffer from constipation, as it adds bulk to the stools and absorbs water thereby keeping the stools soft yet firm and therefore easier to pass. Adding fibre to the diet may at first create some bloating and gas but stick with it as these symptoms should reduce as your body adjusts.
If you think certain foods may be causing your symptoms, the best way to determine this is to pick one food type at a time, for example wheat (which will include all flours, breads, biscuits, pastas, etc.) and stop eating it all together for a period of 10-14 days. After this time, see if your symptoms have reduced at all and then slowly re-introduce the food and see if your symptoms return. Any worsening of symptoms may mean you have intolerance and that specific food is best avoided.
Probiotics are the good bacteria that help us to digest food and prevent the growth of any bad bacteria. In perfect gut conditions, our good bacteria would be found in plenty but IBS may well have reduced your good bacteria levels so supplementing with a probiotic (such as OptiBac Probiotics ‘Bifidobacteria & fibre’) may well be beneficial.
Peppermint for some people can be very soothing and calming on the intestines, especially after a meal. This can be taken as a tea (check your teabags do not contain any artificial flavourings) or as peppermint oil capsules.
Exercise is great for IBS patients as this helps to keep the bowels moving and can reduce stress so try to get out for a 20-minute walk a day.
Eating smaller and more frequent meals will allow the intestines to digest food in more manageable portions and prevent a build-up of food and constipation.
Cut down on fatty, processed foods and limit your intake of alcohol and caffeine as these can be inflammatory to the intestines and worsen symptoms.
If you do suffer from IBS, try not to feel too disheartened by it. Keep a food diary for a few weeks to monitor foods, symptoms and when they happen and slowly you should be able to start recognising patterns or triggers.
There are also a number of IBS support groups such as The IBS Network - www.theibsnetwork.org - who can offer help and support.
For further information on the benefits of probiotics read ‘Benefits of Probiotics & Prebiotics’