April is IBS Awareness Month and as such we felt it relevant to explore the term IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) a bit further, look into its symptoms and help determine whether constipation may be a symptom of IBS.
IBS Awareness Month raises the profile of Irritable Bowel Sydrome and related symptoms
What is IBS?
IBS, known as "Irritable Bowel Syndrome", is a the term for an increasingly common condition affecting 10-20% of the population at some time. The term 'IBS' is used by the medical profession used to describe a collection of digestive symptoms that may involve bloating, abdominal cramps, constipation and diarrhoea. The NHS recognises that IBS may have a psychological component as it is often exacerbated in times of stress. It is also common for IBS symptoms to die down for periods of time, then flare up without apparent cause. There is no apparent "cause" for IBS, yet many natural health practitioners believe it can usually be attributed to a driver such as imbalance in levels of gut bacteria, or a food intolerance. You can read more about the benefits of probiotics (good bacteria) for constipation here.
How do I know what is "normal"?
As individuals we are of course all different, and our bowel movements can vary significantly from person to person, and in some people, from day to day. As a result it can sometimes be tricky to determine if your bowel movements are in fact as they should be, or if there is reason for concern. The Bristol Stool Chart, developed by Dr Ken Heaton at Bristol University as a medical aid designed to classify faeces samples, can be a useful tool to use at home in helping to determine whether your stools are "normal", or whether you may have reason to visit your GP. It was later published in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology in 1997. Type 3 or 4 on the stool chart are mostly considered "normal", passed once a day, with Type 5 perceived to be "ideal" for some people such as those who typically pass bowel motions one or twice a day. For the majority of people, and if your stools are more like Type 1 or 2, and particularly if they are difficult or painful to pass, you may be suffering from constipation. If you suffer from constipation, and then fluctuate at times experiencing stools like Type 6 or 7, possibly accompanied by bloating, flatulence, discomfort and abdominal cramps, you may be suffering from IBS.
The Bristol Stool Chart can be used to help identify whether you are suffering from constipation
Is constipation a symptom of IBS?
Constipation can be a symptom of IBS. Again, it comes down to each individual and what is typical for them. If you often suffer from constipation yet experience a bout of diarrhoea it is helpful if you are able to attribute it to something or not. For example, eating a food that you are intolerant to, or suffering from a gastrointestinal infection of some kind may cause a one-off bout of diarrhoea - and this would mean the fluctuation from constipation to diarrhoea has a different cause, and it is unlikely you are suffering from IBS. (You may like to read more about food intolerances and constipation here.)
It is also common for most people to experience constipation from time to time, and there are many different causes for this, from dehydration to a lack of fibre. Some people for example may experience temporary constipation if they travel away from home. If however you suffer from constipation, which then fluctuates with diarrhoea from time to time, or constipation that is accompanied by much bloating and gas, you may be suffering from IBS.
It is also possible that someone may only experience one symptom with IBS, which may be constipation. It is really important to recognise what is normal for you, and if you feel that your symptoms are unusual for you, or you are struggling to explain what may be causing them, it might be a good idea to seek professional advice.
IBS may cause a number of uncomfortable symptoms including constipation, bloating & cramps
What shall I do if I suspect IBS?
We would always recommend you seek advice from your GP if you believe you are suffering from IBS. Your GP should be able to prescribe medication to help relieve the symptoms of IBS, such as laxatives for constipation to improve motility, and muscle relaxants to ease abdominal cramps. However there are also many natural methods for helping to relieve IBS symptoms, such as constipation, which you can read more about here.
If you receive a diagnosis of IBS, and your GP has ruled out any other possible conditions such as Coeliac Disease, seeking help from a natural healthcare practitioner such as a naturopath or nutritional therapist may help you to identify any potential triggers for your IBS symptoms and constipation.
For further reading about how to determine whether you may have IBS, read this article on IBS by Nicola.