The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IDGD) estimates that 5-10 per cent of the world’s population has IBS.
According to the Foundation, women have the condition more often than men; most patients are under the age of 50; and many are diagnosed only years after their symptoms begin.
Many individuals are hesitant to discuss digestive complaints and bowel symptoms with their doctor, so they suffer needlessly in silence for years, says a gastroenterologist from Cleveland Clinic London this April, which is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Awareness Month.
“Patients frequently undergo multiple investigations and a constant succession of trial-and-error medications.
“Symptoms are frequently dismissed by physicians when the outcome of investigations is negative.
“Furthermore, patients are left without an explanation for the cause of their symptoms and left confused by the lack of clear therapeutic strategy,” says Dr Natalia Zarate-Lopez, Consultant Gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic London.
Causes, triggers and treatments
Researchers believe that a combination of factors can lead to IBS.
These include dysmotility, which refers to problems in how the bowel muscles contract and move food through the GI tract; visceral hypersensitivity, meaning that nerves in the GI tract are extra sensitive to physiologic stimulus like food; and a miscommunication between nerves in the brain and gut referred to as brain-gut axis dysfunction.
Changes in the composition of the gut microbiota can lead to low grade inflammation, affecting both gut sensitivity and motility as well as the interaction between the brain and the gut.
“Studies also suggest that people may be at risk if they have a family history of IBS, emotional stress, tension or anxiety, a history of abuse or childhood trauma, food intolerance or have had gastroenteritis.
“In fact, IBS is now considered a disorder of the brain gut axis.
“The chronic nature of the symptoms can increase the risk of developing anxiety in the long term, and the latter, in turn, influence negatively the emotions generated by the experience of pain and bowel dysfunction, creating a vicious cycle,” explains Dr Natalia Zarate-Lopez.
“Symptoms are frequently influenced by various types of food, but dietetic interventions need to be carefully considered and individualised according to the patient’s past clinical history, lifestyle and clinical symptoms.
“There is no one diet that applies to all,” says Dr Natalia Zarate-Lopez.
In the case of food, certain elimination diets, undertaken in consultation with a doctor, can help ease discomfort and identify which foods trigger symptoms.
Foods typically eliminated include gluten, dairy, sugar, packaged and processed foods.
It is also important to explore habits and routines around food as well as the relation between food and emotional wellbeing.
“Carbohydrates called FODMAPS – an acronym for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols – appear to have the most impact on wellbeing, and many individuals find relief following a long-term, low-FODMAP diet.
“This diet needs to be implemented under expert dietician supervision,” advises Dr Natalia Zarate-Lopez.
“Research-based evidence confirms that a biopsychosocial model is recommended to help patients with IBS symptoms.
“This model recognises that biological mechanisms are responsible for symptom generation, but that central mechanisms like emotions, cognitions and mood influence our ability to cope with symptoms and the experience of pain.
“Finally, external factors like stress or our lifestyle influence the interactions between the brain and the gut,” says Dr Natalia Zarate-Lopez.
“It is therefore fundamental that doctors provide reassurance, education and a bespoke approach to each individual patient.
“This requires a careful clinical assessment, including the patient’s medical history and a physical examination, and, most importantly, an understanding of the impact of symptoms on the patient’s quality of life,” says Dr Natalia Zarate-Lopez.
“Promoting self-management through education empowers the patient to make decisions about their diet and lifestyle, reducing anxiety around their symptoms.
“Pharmacological options need to be adjusted according to each patient’s unique symptom profile, and it might include medications influencing transit along the gut and pain management, but also neuromodulatory medications that impact positively on the brain gut axis dysfunction,” adds Dr Natalia Zarate-Lopez.
Behavioral therapy or physiotherapy can also help.
“Expertise in managing disorders of the brain gut axis, like IBS, within a multidisciplinary team is recommended for patients with moderate and severe symptoms.
“This allows rapid implementation of the most appropriate strategy and access to the diagnostic and therapeutic resources needed,” explains Dr Natalia Zarate-Lopez.
“The ultimate goal is to facilitate patients’ confidence in self-management of their symptoms and improvement of their quality of life,” says Dr Natalia Zarate-Lopez.
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