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Irritable Bowel Syndrome - when the Intestine Rebels

from Mag. Margit Weichselbraun
on 12.06.2023
Irritable Bowel Syndrome - when the Intestine Rebels Irritable Bowel Syndrome - when the Intestine Rebels

Bloating, diarrhea, constipation: Irritable Bowel Syndrome can present in many ways, all of which can complicate daily life. Whether you're sharing a meal with friends, enjoying a family outing, or shopping, your rebellious, sensitive bowels are a permanent and rather unpleasant companion. The good news: The more we learn about Irritable Bowel Syndrome, the better we can treat it. That's why today, we will examine some of the most important questions around Irritable Bowel Syndrome.


What is an irritable bowel?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome refers to several different digestion issues for which doctors have yet to find an organic or biochemical cause, despite thorough research. For most patients, the path to finally receiving a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome is long and difficult. The symptoms are common, however. By some estimates, nearly one in every five people in developed countries have overly sensitive digestive systems – Women about twice as often as men.  Although the condition itself is not dangerous, irritable bowel syndrome is nevertheless stressful and is, above all, a drain on well-being and quality of life.

Which complaints and symptoms are typical of irritable bowel syndrome? 

An overly sensitive bowel can cause discomfort when you eat something that doesn't agree with it. Often, this means cramps or sharp pains in the abdomen, as well as uncomfortable complications when using the toilet. People with Irritable Bowel Syndrome report diarrhea, for example, which may alternate with constipation, as well as painful bowel movements, the constant feeling of “needing to go”, or the feeling that their bowels were not emptied completely. Other symptoms include bloating, belching, flatulence, or gas.

What are the accompanying symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Problems in the bowel affect more than just the abdomen, and can have far-reaching secondary effects. Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome report difficulty in concentration, anxiety, depression, fatigue, circulatory problems and sleep disturbances, among other concerns.


What are the different types of Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome can present in many ways. Depending on symptoms, it can be classified into four types:

Type I: Diarrhea 

The patient suffers from diarrhea at least three times a day. Stool consistency is soft to liquid.

Type II. Constipation 

Characterized by three bowel movements per week at most. Stool consistency is hard.

Type III: Mixed type 

Alternating between diarrhea and constipation – even within the same day.

Type IV: Gas 

Doesn't necessarily relate to stool consistency, but rather with significant flatulence and abdominal cramps.


What causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

When research into irritable bowel syndrome was still in its infancy, it was assumed that an irritable bowel was probably psychological, since stress and anxiety have a noticeable effect on the digestion of many people.  However, many new insights have been gained in recent years and although much remains unknown, it is assumed that several factors play a role in the development of the condition, which can also overlap and influence each other.  Possible factors of irritable bowel syndrome include: 

Intestinal movement disorders

Too fast, too slow, too tense. Many Irritable Bowel Syndrome patients have been observed to have problems with their intestinal muscles (e.g. because of malfunctions in the gut-brain axis or in the “abdominal brain”).

“Leakage” of intestinal mucosa (Leaky Gut)

The natural intestinal barrier is disturbed, which may cause local problems as well as far-reaching disorders throughout the body. This makes it all the more crucial to correct any problems in the intestine and its barriers.

Immune system disorders

New research shows that chronic, mild inflammation of the intestinal wall (with an accumulation and overactivity of immune cells) may lay the groundwork for overly sensitive bowels.

Intestinal flora disorders

Over 1,000 types of bacteria live in our intestines. Their balance is closely tied to our health, well-being and digestion. Disruptions to this microbial population can lead to digestive problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, among other issues.

Psychological Factors

Stress, nervousness, anxiety. Our intestines are delicate sensors that can easily be “upset” by psychological stimuli.

Diarrheal diseases and infections

Gastrointestinal infections do not always automatically trigger Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but they can be a catalyst for intestinal sensitivity issues.

Lifestyle

Too fast, too unhealthy, too little. Our food culture and eating habits, potential food sensitivities, and improper nutrition may also be factors.

Sidebar: Gut-brain communication

Did you know? Our brain has a direct connection to our bowels. We generally don't notice the constant flow of information between these two nerve centers. When stress impacts our digestion, however, this connection becomes uncomfortably clear. The gut also interacts with our brain, and according to new studies, it can influence our thoughts and feelings: even the way we make decisions and manage stress.

Read more: The Gut-Brain-Axis

How can you calm an irritable bowel?

The following tips have been proven to help soothe an overly sensitive intestine:

  • Take your time while eating, and ideally, make sure to eat in a quiet and relaxing setting.
  • Make your intestine's job easier by eating regularly, and reasonable portions: several small portions are bigger than a few big ones.
  • Eat slowly and chew thoroughly.
  • Above all, avoid eating heavy meals in the evening.
  • Avoid very hot or very cold foods.
  • Drink enough liquids, like water or unsweetened herbal tea. Avoid sugary or carbonated beverages, alcohol and coffee as much as possible.
  • When you do experience abdominal discomfort, a trusty hot water bottle works wonders.

Is there a diet to follow for Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

While serious cases require comprehensive treatment (e.g. relaxation techniques, psychotherapeutic measures, short-term medication), mild symptoms can be reduced simply by changing the way you eat. Sensitive bowels are just as idiosyncratic in their food preferences as they are in their negative reactions. So far, there is no proven, universal Irritable Bowel Syndrome diet. Instead, each patient should find out what works and what doesn't – ideally, using a food diary, and under the supervision of their doctor. However, certain culprits have been identified. Sensitive bowels are known to react to:

  • Strong spices
  • Fatty foods and foods known to cause gas
  • Legumes
  • Processed food
  • White flour products
  • Sugar, artificial sweeteners, sweets

What roles do stress and intestinal microflora play in Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Stress not only plays a tangible role in digestion, the bacteria that live in our intestines also suffer if they are constantly “under pressure”. An increased flow of stress hormones reduces the diversity of these bacteria, and restricted digestive activity can also disrupt the bacterial balance in our gut. Our home-grown bacteria zoo weighs up to two kilos; heavier than the heart or the brain. So it's no wonder than an imbalance in these bacteria colonies can lead to significant problems and set the stage for more drama in sensitive bowels.

Conversely, research suggests that the state of our intestinal flora also helps determine how well we manage stress. This means that psychological stress or stress in the gut can both trigger a negative feedback loop, since stress impacts the intestinal flora, and stressed-out intestinal flora can lower our ability to withstand stress (resilience).

Can introducing special bacteria into the intestines help Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

One natural method to combat sensitive bowels and the stress-induced negative feedback loop is to introduce bacterial strains that multiply quickly to restore balance in the intestines. This was confirmed by a recent observational study, in which 93 participants took Biogena fit@work@ Stressbiotic over the course of six weeks. The participants reported that their individual digestive issues as well as their general stress load was reduced when taking customized doses of probiotic cultures (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175), saffron extract, and vitamins  B2 and C.

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Can an irritable bowel go away? 

Irritable bowel syndrome may or may not go away.  While some sufferers find the symptoms disappear after some time, others put up with them for the rest of their lives.  An approach that includes a calm, structured daily routine and slow and relaxed meals is definitely useful for people with irritable bowel syndrome. 

Summary: A complex pathology underlies Irritable Bowel Syndrome. In order to alleviate sensitive bowels, we recommend following an individually adjusted change of diet under the supervision of a medical professional. In addition, customized nutritional supplements with probiotic cultures and targeted micro-nutrients like Vitamin B2, which support healthy intestinal mucosa and bacterial flora, can help reduce the feeling of bowel discomfort.
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