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Your Life: Dear Miriam - Gut reaction What is that stomach ache? HEALTH.


Stomach ache, bloating, wind... we've all experienced these uncomfortable, often embarrassing, symptoms at some time. But if feeling like this is the norm, you may be suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

It's the most common intestinal disorder and it affects up to a quarter of the UK population, with more women suffering than men.

Because symptoms can be embarrassing, people often try to hide them as they worry secretly there's something more seriously wrong.

No one knows the exact cause but we think it's down to an abnormality in the way muscles contract in the large intestine.

For some reason, the bowel becomes sensitised so the intestines go into overdrive, over-contracting when triggered by certain foods, stress, anxiety or illness.

Sometimes the intestines may even go into spasm, causing a colicky type of pain.

On the positive side, it's not serious or life-threatening, but severe symptoms can affect affect day-to-day life. Knowing how to keep it under control is key, but everyone is different.

Watch out for...

Stomach ache

Excessive wind


Pain with bowel movement



The feeling that your bowel hasn't emptied properly

Tests to expect

There's no specific test for IBS, so your doctor may diagnose it after asking questions about your symptoms and carrying out a blood test to rule out infection or a gluten intolerance.

He or she may refer you to the hospital for further tests if you have a family history of bowel problems, are over 60 and have had a change in bowel habits for more than six weeks, or have symptoms such as bleeding or unexplained weight loss. That's because all these could be linked to more serious bowel conditions.

Tests may involve using an endoscope, a flexible tubelike instrument, to look inside your bowel, or an X-ray of your abdomen called a barium enema, which highlights inflamed or ulcerated areas of the colon


Rather than getting a complete cure, most sufferers find they learn to manage their symptoms through a combination of medication, diet and lifestyle.

Your doctor may prescribe a short course of anti-diarrhoeal drugs (such as loperamide) for persistent diarrhoea and antispasmodic drugs (like mebeverine) for muscle spasm and abdominal pain.

Try probiotics, which help reduce the number of harmful bacteria in the gut, and have been shown to help IBS symptoms. But only buy those that contain at least 10 billion bacteria.

Try mind over matter. Studies into cognitive behavioural therapy show that people who train themselves to react differently to their condition, using relaxation techniques and a positive attitude, report a decrease in pain. Some people also find that hypnotherapy and counselling help. For practitioners, visit the British Association for counselling and psychotherapy at or the National Council for Hypnotherapy at

HAVE A DIET MAKEOVER You may have to try several different approaches before finding one that helps you:

Keep a food diary for around six weeks, noting what you eat and what symptoms you have to see whether a pattern emerges.

Then eliminate any food or drink that seems to bring on an attack. Reintroduce the foods one by one to help you identify the culprits.

If constipation is a problem, gradually increase your fibre intake by eating plenty of whole grains, cereal and fresh fruit and vegetables. A bulking agent, such as psyllium husk, bran or isphagula, sterculia and methylcellulose may help - ask your pharmacist for advice.

If bloating and diarrhoea are problems, reduce fibre intake.

Cut out or reduce tea, coffee, milk, cola and beer, which contain stimulants that may exacerbate symptoms.

Cut down on sugary or yeasty foods, which cause fermentation. These include sugar, dairy products, grapes and alcohol, especially wine.

Limit red meat, which is hard to digest, and have fish and skinless white meat.

Eat at regular times to help calm the bowel.

Drink peppermint tea, which aids digestion.

Avoid large meals, spicy, fried or fatty foods or milk, which can worsen symptoms.


YOU SMOKE, STOP - nicotine increases bowel contractions.

GET MOVING - exercise can help reduce attacks of wind because it tones up the stomach muscles and prevents the intestine from swelling up with large pockets of wind. Also, physical activity produces feelgood endorphins so it should help tension and anxiety too.

CHILL OUT - A daily routine of mental and physical relaxation exercises can greatly reduce the effects of stress and anxiety on the bowel, as well as other organs like the heart.

LOVE LAVENDER - Research has shown that five or six drops of essential oil of lavender in your bath, or on a tissue, may relieve stress, as can sleeping on a lavender pillow.

At last the pain has gone

Nurse Claire McNeil, 33, lives in Chafford Hundred, Essex, with husband Tony.

"I got my first IBS symptoms five years ago. When it started I had bouts of diarrhoea, then constipation, sharp stomach pains and wind. My stomach was so bloated I looked six months pregnant.

At work the symptoms were particularly embarrassing as I suffered a lot of wind and couldn't leave the room discreetly. I also needed the loo a lot and it was very urgent when I needed to go.

My doctor diagnosed IBS, said there wasn't much he could do and recommended over-the-counter anti-spasmodic medication.

Then earlier this year my stomach pains were so bad he referred me to hospital. My tummy was so big I was worried I had a cyst or a tumour. Thankfully, the ultrasound and CAT scans came back clear and the hospital doctor put my symptoms down to IBS.

I've coped by cutting down on foods that trigger the symptoms. I try not to have too many fatty or spicy foods, fizzy drinks or alcohol.

I also take Cynara Artichoke supplements to improve my digestive system. Eating healthily and going to the gym helps too.

My symptoms are under control as long as I watch what I eat. My stomach doesn't swell up, I don't have stomach pains or cramps, and my digestive system seems healthier."

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 22, 2008
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