It takes guts - IBS Awareness Month by Ann-Christine Bee .
April marks IBS Awareness Month - it’s estimated that 1 in 5 people in the UK suffers from IBS. Despite the fact many people have heard about IBS, there is still a lot of stigma and embarrassment that comes with it. It takes guts, literally, to navigate the stresses of day-to-day life when you have IBS. Naked Biotics want to help break down this stigma and open up a conversation that spreads awareness and offers a better understanding to those who may not know what it’s like to live with IBS.
What is IBS?
It makes sense to start with this question first. irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that affects the digestive system. Symptoms will be different from person to person, however, these can include stomach cramping, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. Sometimes these symptoms can last for days, weeks, or months at a time and it can be frustrating to live with, with a big impact on everyday life. The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but overall there seems to be some interaction between the nervous system in the gut and brain, your emotional state, the gut microbes, and the immune system of the gut. It’s also said to be linked to hereditary factors.
An invisible illness?
As already mentioned, IBS is not the same for everyone and some people may be more prone to certain symptoms than others. It’s important to note that many people struggle with secondary problems too, such as anxiety and depression, which can come as a result of feeling isolated or worried about IBS. You might have heard of the term ‘invisible illness’ before which is basically a term used for medical conditions that aren’t easily visible to others, such as IBS and anxiety. Unlike someone who is suffering from a broken arm for example or a condition that you can ‘see’, those with invisible illnesses often face additional stigma or other dismissive judgments.
As someone that struggles with IBS and Crohn’s Disease (an inflammatory bowel disease) myself, I can relate to the frustrations that IBS sufferers go through. Daily routines completely change to ensure everything is planned out in case of an ‘emergency.’ During times where we’re not in a pandemic and we have more freedom to move and travel, leaving the house can be a stressful experience for someone with IBS - especially when you’re traveling along new routes or going places you don’t know so well. You can’t schedule when you have a sudden need to go to the toilet, which can really create a sense of fear and heightened anxiety when trying to make plans.
How is IBS diagnosed?
Your GP will want to rule out other diseases, but will probably be able to make a diagnosis based on the described symptoms. Tests may include blood and stool tests, which will be used to assess and rule out a number of different things, allowing your GP to get a better understanding of what is going on and how they can help to relieve your symptoms. Other changes may include diet and lifestyle and your GP may recommend you undertake a low-FODMAP diet.
It’s important to remember that everyone’s experience will be different, for some it can take an awfully long time to get a diagnosis and an approach that works for one person, may not work for the other.
How can IBS be managed?
While IBS is a mystery in many ways, there do appear to be common triggers. Here are just a few ways to help manage IBS a little better:
Food diary - This can help you identify which foods cause the most discomfort, as well as whether there is some other pattern. This can be a very frustrating process, as we get very attached to our favourite foods and it can be disheartening when you realise these foods may be a part of the reason you’re struggling. The NHS has a really helpful, free downloadable food diary template, which is a great way to track any changes and progress.
Stress management - We probably sound like a broken record, but what is going on in your brain really does affect your gut. Millions of nerves and neurons run between your gut and brain and it’s argued that people with IBS feel movements in their guts more sensitively than others, with these movements often being experienced as pain. Since stress activates certain hormones that can affect the gut, this can lead to increased sensitivity and pain. Try and reflect on the areas in your day-to-day that could be attributed to heightened feelings of stress. Similar to your food diary, it can be helpful to note down stress factors and find ways that work for you to slowly try and eliminate or reduce them where possible.
Sleep - Sleep is something that should be a priority for everyone, regardless of whether you have IBS or not. Too little sleep and more importantly low-quality sleep can impact your gut. We touched on this in our last blog where we looked at the different sleep phases, with the deep sleep phase putting our body into ‘repair mode.’ Now, this is a big deal for our gut, as our intestinal cells are replaced and regenerated every 3-5 days. Your body is literally getting rid of damaged gut cells and replacing them with brand spanking new ones. The highest concentrations of Melatonin and Serotonin are found in the gut and these are both key regulators of the sleep-wake cycle and have important roles in GI function. When these are out of whack, you will really feel it even if you don’t have IBS, so if you look at the effects in a ‘healthy’ gut, think of the effects on a stressed gut, ie an IBS sufferer.
Probiotics - These are live bacteria and yeasts that are added to certain foods or taken as food supplements and you may have heard them being described as either "good" or "friendly" bacteria. Probiotics are thought to help restore the natural balance of bacteria in your gut and there’s some evidence to show that probiotics may be helpful in some cases, such as helping prevent diarrhoea when taking antibiotics and helping to ease some symptoms of IBS. The strains of probiotic bacteria used in Naked Biotics work in synergy with each other and with the bacteria already present in our digestive tract. Naked Biotics combine the benefits of a probiotic with those of fermented food, restoring balance to the microbiota.
- Speak to a specialist - If you’re struggling or worried about symptoms, talk to a specialist. There is nothing worse than typing all sorts into Google and trying to self-diagnose yourself. As mentioned earlier, everyone’s experience is different, including symptoms and also best treatments. Let’s face it, Google will always tell you the worst outcome and can increase your feelings of anxiety and stress. Take note of how you’ve been feeling and try and have together as much information as possible to take to your GP/Specialist. Remember they are there to help you and although some of the conversations may feel embarrassing or uncomfortable, they’ve heard it all before.
Help end the stigma
It's time that we end the shame and stigma that surround so many medical conditions, including IBS. By stigmatising potentially embarrassing and sensitive diagnoses, we effectively discourage people from getting the necessary help and care they need. If you or someone you know suffers from IBS, you can help to break down the stigma. If we start to normalise talking about invisible illnesses with friends, family, and colleagues, it might help reduce the taboo topic and allow for honest, non-judgmental conversations. If you start talking openly, people will probably start to follow you and see that it’s super common and OK to talk about.