IBS: what it is and how it can impact lives

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common digestive disorder which affects around two in ten people in the UK.  

Around 60-65% of sufferers are women and 35-40% are men.  

The symptoms vary from person to person but include fatigue, frequent urination, bloating, sore joints, constipation and diarrhoea.

The FODMAP diet is sometimes recommended by doctors at first diagnosis.

IBS is rarely discussed in the media but is often debilitating and impacts sufferers lives.

Many have experienced symptoms for the first time this year or seen symptoms worsen because of pandemic anxiety.

As a result, the UK charity, The IBS Network has seen demand for their services increase, as CEO Alison Reid explains below.

Interview with The IBS Network CEO, Alison Reid

Here are the stories and quotes from some of the people affected by IBS.

Lee: “I do not think people realise how bad it can get unless they suffer too”

Imogen: “Anxiety due to the pandemic has made my IBS so much worse.”

Imogen ignored her symptoms for a while, thinking they were caused by poor diet choices, stress and too much coffee.

She said over the last six months they got much worse and the GP diagnosed IBS on the second visit.

Imogen found she reacts worst to dairy and gluten, coffee and Chinese takeaway. 

To manage her symptoms she said: “I take Buscopam a couple of times a week when I eat too much dairy or gluten. I also take a probiotic, calcium and vitamin D at the advice of online forums.

“Anxiety due to the pandemic has made my IBS so much worse. Without much routine and lots of alone time I have become even more aware of symptoms.”

Imogen said in the future she will have to change her diet more and cut out more to maintain it but she hopes that as her anxiety improves it will get easier to cope with.

IBS: Many people have found the pandemic has made their symptoms worse

*Simon: “You have to take it day by day because you cannot plan anything.”

*Sam: “The pain was as bad as contractions.”

Sam first experienced IBS at the age of 52/53 caused by a stressful time.

She had loose bowels and was not able to wait for the toilet.

She said: “I am now 62 and very active, but only around the house and my sanctuary the garden because I still cannot make plans.

“I can have a flare up every four days and that is being careful what I eat. Only my hubby, daughter and son know what I go through.

“A few months ago it changed to a constipation flare which was even more painful. I am not a drama queen but the pain was as bad as contractions.

“Last week I had another 48hr flare up which caused a prolapse. This is the last straw for me. I had to go to the emergency gynaecologist.”

Poll conducted on an IBS UK Facebook group

Karolina: “It is a lot better than it was 9-12 months ago”

Karolina runs her own Instagram page letstalkibsx where she discusses her experiences with IBS and fibromyalgia.

The pandemic has allowed her to work out what helps her stomach and so her IBS is better than it was 9-12 months ago, however, she told me her IBS is something she worries about most days.

Karolina added: “I would like to think I can get my symptoms to the point I am fully happy with. I would like wherever I end up being after uni, for the employer to also be understanding.

“It is not a choice to have this and many people do not understand the condition.”

Kiera: “My mental health had decreased and my IBS is strongly linked with my anxiety.”

Kiera first noticed symptoms at the end of her first year of university and realised things were getting worse over her second year of university.

She eventually decided to see a doctor and was diagnosed after a couple of months.

Kiera said: “At the worst, I cannot move from my bed and have to lie on my stomach, at my best I have stomach ache.”

She told me at the start of the pandemic her IBS improved because she spent a few months not doing anything so had no stress.

Now, because of online university, it is a different story.

Kiera said: “As time went on it has gotten worse due to the constant fear of contracting the virus and the extra stress it puts on university due to it being online and therefore harder.

“My mental health has decreased and my IBS is strongly linked with my anxiety.”

Pam: “This is nothing short of a life-changer for me.”

Pam was diagnosed with IBS as a teenager and is now 47.

When she was in her 20’s it got worse and she was prescribed codeine phosphate in 2002 for the pain.

She said: “I was told it was anxiety IBS which seemed to fit as I had exams. About 5/6 years ago I started getting excruciating pains mainly under my bottom rib.”

Pam was put on multiple medications until a health scare over 2020, when she spoke to a cancer surgeon about her IBS, who was also a sufferer and told her it was caused by food intolerance.

She said: “He directed me to a food intolerance test he knew to be good.”

Pam cut the foods she was intolerant to out of her diet and eventually noticed a change.

Pam said: “It was like flicking a switch. My energy levels have totally changed. This is nothing short of a life-changer for me.”

RESULTS: Example food intolerance test results

James: “I have never been negative about it, it is just part of my life, and it is like breathing air. I avoid things that I know will give me pain, same way that someone who has a peanut allergy avoids peanuts. I remain stress-free and avoid unnecessary conflicts and that means I only have severe problems with it once or twice a year.”

Gaby: “It is a really tiring condition to have.”

Gaby was diagnosed in 2020, after suffering symptoms for a number of years.

She explained IBS is a very tiring condition to have on a daily basis.

She said: “My IBS is heavily impacted by stress, so the pandemic has made my symptoms worse.

“Please be kind and considerate, because so many people have IBS but nobody ever talks about it. IBS for many people can be so severe that it counts as a disability, which I think a lot of people do not realise.”

IBS support and advice is available here.

*names have been changed

Featured image credit: Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash

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