This month saw the release of new research by ASDA Pharmacy that corroborates the IBS Network's evidence of the vicious cycle of mental stress on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) - a health condition that affects around 12 million people in the UK, yet is very little talked about.
This "hidden disability" affects between 10-20% of people living in the UK, but as ASDA's research suggests, could be much higher due to the reluctance from sufferers to speak out and seek help. And, with April marking both National IBS Awareness Month and National Stress Awareness Month, there is no better time than now to gain a better understanding of the condition and ways to self-manage the symptoms.
The study highlighted the hidden mental stress associated with IBS symptoms and the thoughts that most occupy sufferers daily:
1. Having total privacy (completely enclosed spaces) in the bathroom (28%)
2. Timing meals around times when there is easy access to facilities (21%)
3. Having to avoid certain foods, especially in situations where choice is unavailable (17%)
4. Finding time in the day to avoid work or high-stress situations that can bring on symptoms without managers noticing absence (11%)
5. Not being able to take painkillers in situations (i.e. meetings, presentations) when a bout of symptoms come on
Anxiety and stress are key factors in triggering IBS with almost three-quarters stating that it exacerbates their symptoms. The condition can mean feelings of isolation through an inability to leave the house for fear of an accident, cancelled holidays, and days off work. The stress caused by the distress of these symptoms, worry of losing job, the humiliation of an accident, can make the condition worse, which creates a vicious circle.
What is IBS?
IBS is a long-term illness consisting of frequent abdominal discomfort, sometimes extremely severe, and bowel symptoms that cannot be explained by any other disease. Symptoms can be complex and conflicting and can include one or a combination of constipation, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps and pain, bloating, changes in bowel movement, and frustrated defaecation. Less well-known symptoms associated with IBS include headache, dizziness, backache, anxiety/depression, tiredness and joint pain. It can lead to feelings of isolation and cause major problems in people's working and personal lives.
What is really going on?
IBS is a debilitating illness that has no specific cause, no distinctive pathology and no single effective treatment. It is important to distinguish between what factors may sensitise the gut, then trigger the symptoms of IBS. 10% of those recovering from gastroenteritis, (food poisoning), will be left with IBS. A course of powerful antibiotics to treat other serious conditions can severely deplete the gut microbiome leading to a sensitised gut and many develop post-traumatic IBS after an event or series of events that they have felt particularly traumatic or upsetting.
So, people with IBS tend to have a sensitive gut, and a combination of stress, diet or lifestyle changes may trigger symptoms. With an increasing number of people leading fast, busy and stressful lives, increasing understanding of the condition and more open discussions about toilet habits and gut health you may have noticed growing publicity about this long-term condition.
How do we support those with IBS?
Pharmacists play a key role in signposting people with IBS symptoms to see their GP for a diagnosis. Our members have reported that talking openly about their condition with people who understand really helps them break this cycle supporting them in taking control of their IBS. Through our work, the charity is challenging the 'poo taboo'.
It's great to see household names like ASDA trying to raise awareness of the condition - we are backing the digestive health events they are hosting in-store to provide easy-to-understand advice and tips that people can conveniently take away with them whilst they're in for their weekly shop. It's key to open up the conversation about IBS - how to spot the symptoms and what steps you can take to manage the symptoms, so we can all better understand how to make life easier for those who need the support. ASDA Pharmacy's digestive health event will run in-store from 1 - 24 April.
Overcoming IBS with lifestyle changes
IBS is not like other diseases. The range of symptoms and the context in which they occur can often seem to express the memory and the meaning of what has happened in someone's life. Understanding what the symptoms represent can give a valuable insight into how the illness may be managed.
For people diagnosed with IBS, it is worth considering physical activity levels and psychological wellbeing. Many people with IBS discover that their bowels seem to function like an 'emotional barometer', indicating how they feel about what is going on their lives. Emotional tension always makes IBS worse. Anxiety, frustration, despair can all tie the guts in knots. Being aware of this is an important starting point.