BY MICHELLE MAISONVILLE
April is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Month (IBS), an often taboo condition that affects five million Canadians, one of the highest rates of IBS in the world.
The Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF) describes IBS as “a common chronic gastrointestinal disorder that involves problems with how the bowel moves contents through our intestines and sensitivity of how the brain interprets sensations in the bowel.”
People affected by IBS can experience recurrent abdominal pain and irregular bowel patterns that are often painful. Oftentimes symptoms are chronic and irregular and may last for months or years.
The symptoms people living with IBS experience vary from person to person but may include gas, bloating, cramps, abdominal pain related to bowel movements, irregular bowel patterns, diarrhea or constipation, or, alternating between the two, heartburn and nausea.
“People can become prisoners of their own home because they’re not sure if they’re going to be in pain or if they’re going to have access to a washroom,” said Catherine Mulvale, CDHF’s executive director.
The exact cause of IBS is unknown, however, it’s believed that it may be linked to a prior infection or event that disrupts the normal functioning of the intestines. For example, Mulvale said people can develop IBS after food poisoning. An imbalance of intestinal bacteria or a change in the body’s levels of hormones may also lead to the development of the disorder.
According to the CDHF only about 40 per cent of IBS sufferers seek medical attention. People with milder symptoms usually end up self-treating through lifestyle changes and non-prescription remedies.
Mulvale said there isn’t a cure for IBS but medications are available that can help people manage their symptoms.
The CDHF recommends several strategies that can be used to reduce IBS symptoms, including improving their diet by eating a high fibre, low fat diet, trying the diet of elimination, avoiding junk food, exercising, getting enough rest, keeping a diary to help identify specific triggering dietary and emotional factors, and minimizing stress and tension.
Dr. Camilla Krause, a naturopathic doctor at Healthsource Integrative Medical Centre said roughly one in three or four of her patients have some sort of digestive concern, whether they’ve been diagnosed or not. Some of these patients have been diagnosed with IBS and are frustrated with traditional medicine.
“I think usually they’re not offered a lot of options so they’re looking for better relief of their symptoms,” she said.
Krause said what they’re eating, their pattern of eating and food sensitivity can play a big part of IBS and IBS symptoms.
She said a diet of elimination can also be useful because it can help to know if certain foods worsen symptoms. This means eliminating certain foods for a period of time and then slowly reintroducing them back into your diet and monitoring your symptoms for possible reactions.
Krause said another thing she looks into is whether or not they’re getting enough probiotics or if they have a history of antibiotics, which could deplete the good bacteria in their body.
Various things such as yogurt, kombucha and kefir can help ensure people get the necessary probiotics.
She said fibre has also found to be beneficial in the long-run but it needs to be approached carefully because it can increase immediate symptoms for some people.
“It needs to be recognized that it’s a real digestive disorder with real symptoms and it can be debilitating,” said Mulvale.