Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a common condition affecting many in the UK. According to the NHS, it can be a lifelong condition, so knowing how to manage it is essential. IBS can also have an affect on the menstrual cycle, making PMS symptoms worse. We spoke to Lara Pocock at OMED Health for more information on the condition and how to manage it.
What is IBS?
Lara told us,
“Digestive disorders affect up to 40% of people worldwide, impacting millions of lives daily, with one of the most prevalent being Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a lifelong, common digestive system condition that does not cause recognisable inflammation or damage to the intestinal lining of the gut but causes pain, discomfort and a poor quality of life for sufferers.
There are three subtypes of IBS; diarrhoea-predominant IBS (IBS-D), constipation-predominant IBS (IBS-C), and IBS mixed (IBS-M) having both diarrhoea and constipation symptoms intermittently.”
According to the charity Guts UK!, around 1 in 8 of us here in the UK currently suffer with IBS, which equates to 3.2 million people. But it can be difficult to diagnose, so the real figures could actually be a lot higher.
What causes IBS?
So what causes IBS to occur? Over to Lara:
“The exact cause of IBS is not yet fully understood. There is evidence to suggest it can be due to food passing through the gut too quickly or too slowly, as well as from the complex interactions between the brain and the gut, also known as the gut brain axis.
External factors such as stress, anxiety, changes in diet or physical activity, and gut microbiota imbalances may trigger or exacerbate symptoms in sufferers.”
Lots of IBS sufferers tend to know what triggers a flare up of their condition- including which foods and drink to avoid, and when stress is likely to cause digestive issues too. The NHS advises to keep a diary of what you eat so that you can eliminate the foods that make your IBS worse.
What are the main symptoms of IBS?
Not sure if you’re suffering with IBS? We asked Lara to tell us more about the most common symptoms.
She told us,
“The symptoms of IBS can vary widely from person to person and for a diagnosis, the sufferer will need to have reported them for at least six months. IBS is categorised by reoccurring bouts of abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and changes in bowel habits, including diarrhoea, constipation, or both.”
How is the menstrual cycle affected by IBS?
So how is the menstrual cycle affected by IBS, and how do periods affect the condition? According to Guts UK!, women are 1.5 times more likely to experience IBS, and it’s thought that hormonal change could be to blame. More research is needed, however, in order to find out more about the connections between hormones and the bowel.
Lara agrees, adding,
“The prevalence of digestive disorders is a lot higher in women, particularly those who are premenopausal. The female colon is around 10cm longer than men’s and shares space in the abdomen with the female reproductive organs- and this, alongside the monthly fluctuations of oestrogen and progesterone, is thought to be the cause of digestive discomfort. Alongside this, IBS sufferers have reported that their symptoms tend to flare up during their monthly cycle.
Changes in hormone levels through the menstrual cycle can alter the time it takes for food to travel through the digestive system, leading to uncomfortable symptoms such as nausea, diarrhoea, and stomach pain when food travels faster, or gas, bloating, and constipation.
It is thought that hormonal therapy may help female IBS patients, but further studies are needed.”
Sound familiar? You’re not alone. If you do find that your IBS symptoms are a lot worse during your period, it’s important to keep a note of them so that you can discuss the issue with your doctor. And on a practical level, period pants can help.
Go for a high waisted pair to gently support the tummy and to avoid digging in when digestive pain occurs. We recommend our Stretch Seamless pants, as they can grow to accommodate bloating, and will provide gentle support when you need it most.
What treatments are available to manage IBS?
Lara told that there’s no cure for IBS right now, so learning how to ease the symptoms as best you can is crucial.
“At present, there is no cure for IBS, and it can take a long time for a diagnosis as there is no specific test for the condition. This can leave sufferers frustrated and unable to make the appropriate and informed changes to their diet and lifestyle that would help to alleviate symptoms and improve their daily life.
A clinician may suggest other tests to rule out other conditions such as coeliac disease, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and Crohn’s Disease. These may include blood tests, stool samples, imaging and endoscopic procedures which can all require a large amount of preparation, are invasive for the patient, and expensive for the payee.
One emerging diagnostic test is a Hydrogen Methane Breath Test (HMBT), which detects the level of hydrogen and methane on your breath that are produced from the fermentation of undigested sugars in your gut microbiome. Doing the test is easy, you blow through the straw provided into the collection tubes at the right times and write down any symptoms you’re experiencing. These at home tests allow patients to have a completely non-invasive diagnosis that does not leave them in pain or uncomfortable.
However, the amount of information given to patients after diagnostic tests can be overwhelming, and many at home HMBTs do not include interpretation of the data, expert advice, and a personalised treatment plan. OMED Health, a division of Owlstone Medical, the world leader in breath analysis, has recognised these challenges and is able to offer simple, at home gut health breath tests, alongside advice from gastrointestinal experts. Later this year they will launch the a portable breath tester fits in your pocket, allowing you to detect hydrogen and methane gas in your breath anytime, anywhere.”
Your doctor might also recommend lifestyle changes and changes to your diet to help you manage IBS symptoms too. Make an appointment to discuss the best options for you.
Can your period make IBS worse?
Some studies, such as this one, suggest that IBS symptoms can worsen during your period. It’s though that fluctuating hormones could be to blame, alongside period cramps. Speak to your doctor for more advice if you find that your IBS symptoms are interfering with your usual activities during your period.
Can hormones trigger IBS?
More research is needed, but doctors do think that fluctuating hormones during the menstrual cycle can worsen IBS symptoms. Other triggers include wheat, dairy, certain foods and drinks, processed foods and foods high in sugar and/ or salt. Keeping a diary off you food intake and reaction to those foods can help you to narrow it down.
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