Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, often shortened to just 'IBS', is a condition which causes either constipation or diarrhoea sometimes accompanied by abdominal pain or cramps immediately after a meal and bloating and/or wind.

Some people only suffer diarrhoea, others only constipation, and some have both and switch between the two.

Roughly 20% of Australians suffer IBS at some point in their lives, although the condition is twice as common in women than in men and symptoms generally present between the ages of 18-24 and very rarely after the age of 45.

As the condition is a syndrome, not a specific infection or disease, there is no specific test for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and your doctor will be able to determine if symptoms are caused by IBS or if there is another cause. Some tests (for example blood and stool tests, or a sigmoidoscopy - an examination of the bowel lining) may be required to rule out other possible causes of the same symptoms.

Medical science has not found a definitive cause of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, although it is believed that IBS is linked to a number of factors, such as:

  • A previous infection - bowel problems may persist long after an infection such as gastroenteritis had otherwise cleared up
  • General diet and food intolerance issues - especially the inability to fully absorb some food types such as lactose (a sugar found in dairy products), fructose and sorbitol - is implicated in IBS
  • Stress levels - people who are suffering from emotional stress of anxiety are more prone to IBS
  • Some types of medication - particularly antacids, painkillers and some antibiotics may cause IBS

How to treat IBS

Apart from medication designed to treat the symptoms of constipation and/or diarrhoea, the most effective approach in many cases is a change in diet to avoid foods which may trigger episodes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and in lifestyle. Your doctor may recommend you keep a food diary to track what you eat to help identify particular food types which may exacerbate your symptoms of IBS.

When diet change (lactose free, gluten free, low FODMAP) is the suggested management plan, often you will be referred to a dietician to guide you regarding specific diet changes.