Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A nasty and quietly life-destroying sickness impacting lives

By Sande E Oundo

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a medical disorder of the stomach characterized by a group of symptoms that commonly include abdominal pain, abdominal bloating, and changes in the consistency of bowel movements. Symptoms usually are experienced as acute attacks that subside within one day, but recurrent attacks are likely. Sometimes it is relieved after a bowel movement.  

The reason why it’s called syndrome and not a disease is because a group of symptoms that consistently occur together, or a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms. When a syndrome is paired with a definite cause this becomes a disease.

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Food and drinks like fried food, beans, coffee, milk, and carbonated drinks have been reported to precipitate an IBS attack.

It has been linked with disorders such as anxiety, major depression, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

It affects about 10 – 15% of the population of the world, at one time or another. The occurrence rates seem higher in women, especially below the age of 45. With the Covid19, the rates have likely spiked. 

What causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

The stomach is called the second brain for a reason because it has a unique nervous system consisting of a mesh-like system of neurons that governs the function of the gastrointestinal system with more than 10 million neuron cells. Even if you cut the nerves that connect the brain to the stomach, the stomach is shown to be able to function on its own. 

Abnormality with serotonin levels, the hormone which is responsible for satisfaction is low in depressed people. 95% of serotonin is produced in the gut. It’s made from tryptophan, amino acids, which are found in milk and fish.

The relationship between gut microbiota(microorganisms that live in our digestive tract) and humans is not merely commensal (a non-harmful coexistence), but rather mutualistic. Human gut microorganisms benefit the host by collecting the energy from the fermentation of undigested carbohydrates and the subsequent absorption of some nutrients like short fats. Intestinal bacteria also play a role in synthesizing vitamin B and vitamin K as well as metabolizing bile acids, and some hormones. The microbiota communicates with the nervous system and the brain when there is an abnormality, hence the state of your stomach health can determine the state of your mental health.

The composition of human gut microbiota changes over time, when the diet changes, and as overall health changes. In general, the average human has over 1000 species of bacteria in their gut microbiome. Diets higher in processed foods and unnatural chemicals can negatively alter the ratios of these species, while diets high in whole foods can positively alter the ratios.

Additional health factors that may skew the composition of the gut microbiota are exercise, sleep, antibiotics, and probiotics. Antibiotics have severe impacts on gut microbiota, ridding of both good and bad bacteria. Without proper rehabilitation, it can be easy for harmful bacteria to become dominant. Probiotics(like yogurts) may help to mitigate this by supplying healthy bacteria into the gut and replenishing the richness and diversity of the gut microbiota. Even transplanting stool from someone who has healthy microbiota to someone with abnormal microbiota was shown to improve the symptoms. 

Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth occurs with greater frequency in people diagnosed with IBS compared to healthy controls when bacteria from the large intestine immigrate to the small intestine. This bacteria ferments hence leading to bloating and smelly burps. It can be caused by taking antacids for ulcers. 

The stress response in the body involves the adrenal gland (which produces the stress hormone, cortisol) and the sympathetic nervous system(which produces the fight or flight neurotransmitter, adrenaline), both of which have been shown to operate abnormally in people with IBS. Check out our former article to learn about the different types of nervous system and anxiety click here.

Psychological traits predispose previously healthy people to develop IBS after an infection of the stomach(gastroenteritis). As we mentioned in the former article, people who are high in neuroticism are more predisposed to anxiety and IBS. Take a free personality test by clicking here.

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People who had colic when they were children are more likely to develop it, possibly because of the bacteria Klebsiella which is found to colonize the stomach of those infants. 

What are the 10 things I did to overcome IBS in 2-3 years?

  1. Finding a purpose in life and making it aligned with my career aspirations.
  2. Learning about my personality and how I am susceptible to anxiety.
  3. Meditation to calm down my anxiety.
  4. Avoiding fried and fatty food rather than food with more fiber while fasting for 10 hours a day.
  5. Exercising daily and regularly for 30 minutes minimum.
  6. Sleeping routinely for 8 hours minimally, supplemented with naps.
  7. Vigorously losing weight of about 20 kgs in the last 2 years which has even improved my self-esteem.
  8. Finding healthy ways to have fun like get-togethers with friends and not stress-inducing ones like watching football.
  9. Expressing creatively to release some of the energy that can be turned into stress or anxiety.
  10. Talking about my feelings and becoming more assertive rather than turning them inward.

In conclusion, For many people, the key to managing IBS symptoms is to track and avoid triggers.  This 2021 study notes that stress and anxiety can be triggers for IBS symptoms for many people. The nervous system, to a great degree, controls the motility of the digestive system. This means that stress can affect your nerves, making your digestive system overactive.

Sande Elison Oundo President of Vigilant Living, an online wellness, counselling and coaching firm.

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