Have you got IBS? 6 signs & symptoms to be aware of
Bloating, tiredness, nausea - we can all relate to this from time to time! But how do you know if you’re simply suffering from an innocent case of ‘upset stomach’, or if you actually have a digestive condition such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?
It’s easy to ignore the signs and symptoms of IBS, but as many of us know, a diagnosis of any illness can significantly improve a person’s quality of life as we learn to manage the condition.
So in honour of IBS Awareness Month, we’re helping you to understand the condition, make you aware of the subtle and obvious symptoms to look out for, and give you tips on how to manage IBS after diagnosis.
What is irritable bowel syndrome?
IBS is an incurable but manageable condition that affects the digestive system. Whilst this doesn’t mean that your digestive system is in any way damaged or diseased, it does mean that the gut isn’t functioning as it should, which causes a range of symptoms that vary in severity from person to person.
For the majority of people with IBS, it is a condition that they live with long term. The effects of IBS can impact the body both physically and mentally, and can significantly disrupt daily life.
Although it is incurable, some people have been known to grow out of the condition with symptoms improving over time. This may be because people learn to understand and manage the condition and avoid the triggers which may flare up their IBS.
What causes irritable bowel syndrome?
There is little known about the cause of IBS, but there are many suggested biological and environmental factors that are yet to be scientifically proven. Genetics, stress, and food intolerances are amongst the suspected causes.
Not having a definitive cause can be frustrating. People are often left to figure out for themselves what could be causing their symptoms. If you feel like you’ve been left in the dark with your condition, read on to understand your symptoms and how you can manage them.
6 signs you could have IBS
Many of the symptoms of IBS can be mistaken for other conditions, and if you’re a woman you may associate your symptoms with your period.
IBS symptoms in females can be more severe during menstruation, and the tell-tale signs of stomach cramps and bloating can often be passed off as ‘your time of the month’.
IBS is more common in women but anyone at any age can have the condition, and whether you’re male or female, keep a close eye on the following symptoms.
1. Your bowel movements/habits have changed
You should always take notice of any changes to your bowel habits. If you’ve had persistent changes in bowel movements for more than three weeks, you’re passing stools more or less than what is usual for you, or there is any change to the appearance of your stools, it’s always worth a visit to your GP to ensure there isn’t a serious underlying condition causing this.
More often than not, it’s nothing serious. IBS is one (non-life-threatening) condition that is often responsible for persistent changes in bowel habits such as diarrhoea and/or constipation.
There are lots of different treatments for diarrhoea and constipation but the key with both is to stay hydrated!
Water helps stubborn stools move along more smoothly, and it also helps to rehydrate your body after losing fluids through diarrhoea.
If you need an extra helping hand, try products containing senna for relief of short term constipation, and products containing loperamide to bulk up stools and help control diarrhoea.
2. You’ve got pain and discomfort in your abdominal area
Pain, bloating, and general discomfort around the abdomen is very characteristic of IBS. People living with IBS often describe the pain as coming and going in waves of pain similar to cramps, usually relieved by passing stools or wind.
Antispasmodic medications such as Buscopan can specifically help with easing the cramps associated with IBS by relaxing the muscles in the bowel.
3. You’re feeling particularly gassy!
Another common symptom of IBS is flatulence. Flatulence is a very normal bodily function, and on average people can pass wind up to 15 times a day! Maybe more, depending on what’s normal for you.
However, you may have IBS if you’re passing wind more often than usual and you have pain accompanied by this. The build-up of gas associated with IBS can also cause belching and loud gurgling noises coming from the stomach.
As the old saying goes: “it's better out than in!”. Keeping in wind does more harm than good and can actually make the symptoms of IBS worse and increase abdominal pain.
Peppermint is a great natural remedy for breaking up gas and easing wind, and it’s found in many IBS relief and digestive health medications.
4. You’re feeling sick and may have lost your appetite
It goes without saying that the above symptoms are enough to put you off your food. The pain and discomfort can disrupt your normal eating habits while you’re getting through a bout of IBS. Plus, if certain foods trigger your IBS, you’ll no doubt want to avoid these foods for a short period which may affect your appetite.
Many people with IBS report feeling nauseous and this can also have a knock-on effect on appetite.
During a flare-up of IBS, try to eat little and often if you’re experiencing nausea, snack on bland foods such as crackers and bread, drink plenty of water, and most importantly avoid any foods that make your IBS worse.
5. Fatigue and lethargy
IBS can be exhausting. The emotional distress of the condition combined with the physical pain which may keep you up at night is enough to disrupt sleep and make you physically and mentally fatigued.
When going through IBS, your body loses essential vitamins and minerals. This is primarily because your body isn’t digesting and absorbing food properly to be able to get those essential nutrients. Plus, you’ll also be losing fluids if you have diarrhoea, and this will contribute to a decrease in energy levels.
A link between IBS and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) has also been researched. Again, there isn’t a single or simple answer for why the two conditions may be connected, but it’s thought that viral, bacterial or parasitic infections in the past could trigger symptoms of both IBS and CFS.
To overcome the fatigue associated with IBS it’s important to work on replacing those lost nutrients to give your energy levels a boost!
Try rehydration sachets such as Diarolyte, particularly if you’re suffering from diarrhoea - these will replace the lost water and salts. B vitamins and iron are great for increasing energy levels, whether you get them from food such as dark-green leafy vegetables or supplements.
Supporting your gut health long term with fibre, probiotics and vitamin D will also help combat fatigue. Don’t underestimate the importance of a healthy gut, after all, it is known as your second brain!
6. Low mood and depression
Stress, anxiety, and depression all lead to digestive problems, and digestive problems lead to the same psychological conditions - it’s all one big cycle! So how do you break the cycle?
The pain, discomfort, embarrassment and disruption to work and social activities that IBS causes can seriously impact mental health.
Getting a diagnosis and managing IBS properly is key to helping you lead a fulfilled and happy life. If your IBS is under control you’re less likely to feel low in mood, and you’re less likely to feel anxious about your normal daily routines such as work and other social events.
Although, we understand it isn’t as simple as this. Sometimes, stress is a trigger for IBS and it is stress that needs to be controlled in order to improve symptoms of IBS.
Speak to your GP if you feel that stress, depression or anxiety are causing your IBS symptoms and you’re having difficulty improving your mental health.
Everyone is different, but there are many ways to manage your mental health, whether that’s simply through relaxation techniques, making changes to your lifestyle, or even medication.
Are you experiencing symptoms of IBS?
If you have all or some of the above symptoms that come and go over a period of days, weeks or months it’s likely you have IBS. Your doctor will be able to diagnose this by ruling out other conditions and taking into consideration the symptoms that you describe.
Using our above IBS symptom checker and understanding the condition is the first step, and remember, lots of people successfully manage this condition and you can get back to feeling like yourself again!