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Managing irritable bowel syndrome

By Mark Versland, M.D. [August 19 2010]

Maybe your digestive system is so temperamental you're afraid to travel. Or perhaps frequent bloating, cramps and unpredictable bowel movements force you to stay close to a restroom at all times. If these scenes could be copied from your life, you may have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Often called “spastic colon,” this digestive-system disorder results from an improperly functioning colon, or large intestine, and can cause abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, mucus in the stool and episodes of chronic constipation or diarrhea (often with urgency) or alternating bouts of both. Although help is available, embarrassment causes many people with IBS to suffer in silence rather than seek treatment.

The root of the problem

It's believed that the condition occurs when the delicate interplay among the nerves, hormones and electrical activity that link the bowel and the brain is disrupted. If you never thought about the connection between the brain and the stomach before, just imagine the butterflies you feel before making a speech or the bellyache that might come on during a heated argument. With IBS, pain sensors in the colon are more sensitive than normal, causing them to respond strongly to stimuli that don't affect most people. Although IBS can't be cured, most people can manage their symptoms with a three-pronged approach of diet changes, stress management and medications.

Fight back with food strategies
Keep a journal to identify specific foods like dairy and wheat that may cause your symptoms. In addition, try these tips:

  • Eat smaller, low-fat meals more often and chew slowly, which lessens the amounts of air swallowed.

  • Consume more high-fiber foods like whole-grain breads, cereals, and fruits and vegetables.

  • Drink six to eight glasses of water a day. Avoid carbonated beverages, chewing gum and smoking, which may introduce more gas to the GI tract.

  • Avoid common triggers such as chocolate, alcohol, caffeine and spicy foods.


Seek stress relief

Although stress doesn't cause IBS, it can stimulate colon spasms and trigger symptoms in people who have the condition. To ease stress:

  • Try relaxation therapies such as meditation.

  • Seek counseling and support to help you address stress.

  • Exercise regularly; try walking or yoga.

  • Get adequate sleep.


Talk to your doctor

See your doctor as soon as symptoms appear. Symptoms of IBS can mimic those of more serious inflammatory conditions or even cancer. He or she will know which treatment course is best for you or if additional testing is needed. Your doctor may suggest over-the-counter or prescription drugs. For example, fiber supplements may help correct constipation. Probiotics, which contain beneficial bacterium, are often helpful. Antidiarrheals, laxatives and antispasmodics may also be used to ease symptoms. In more severe cases, antidepressant medication may help soothe distress.

Dr. Mark Versland is director of Gastroenterology at The Hospital of Central Connecticut. For more information about Gastroenterology services at the hospital, please call 860-276-5180 (Bradley Memorial campus) or 860-224-5167 (New Britain General campus). Visit our Gastroenterology section.