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Bowel > Bowel Problems > Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

What is IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is the name health professionals give to a series of symptoms relating to a disturbance of the large bowel that cannot be explained by any other disease.

Symptoms of IBS can include:

  • Abdominal cramps - often relieved by emptying the bowels
  • Change in bowel habit; either diarrhoea or constipation or an alternating pattern
  • Bloating and swollen abdomen
  • An urgent need to go to the toilet
  • A feeling of incomplete bowel evacuation
  • Gurgling noises in stomach area
  • Excessive wind
  • Passing mucus from your back passage 

People with IBS can also experience a variety of other unexplained symptoms including tiredness, backache, bladder frequency, indigestion, headaches, depression and anxiety. 

What are the causes of IBS?

There is no definitive cause of IBS but the bowel is often more sensitive and reactive to changes in food and mood. Factors that seem to make the gut more sensitive include troubling life events or situations and a bout of gastroenteritis. The sensitivity may be mediated by a chemical transmitter called serotonin.

Sensitivity to food 

Symptoms of IBS are often triggered by a meal, but only very rarely due to a specific food allergy. People with IBS can be intolerant to a range of common foods, suggesting that it's not so much the actual food that's the problem, but the sensitive gut overreacting to its contents. Nevertheless, foods that tend to stimulate the gut are more likely to trigger symptoms. These include fatty foods, coffee, hot spices, some fruits and vegetables and cereal fibre. Drinking a lot of milk may also cause bloating and loose motions in people with IBS.

Since emotional stress can make the bowel sensitive, intolerances can come and go depending on how you feel. 

Taking a probiotic drink daily may help to calm and regulate your bowels. People with IBS who choose to try probiotics should be advised to take the product for at least 4 weeks while monitoring the effect. Probiotics should be taken at the dose recommended by the manufacturer.


A small group of people develop IBS following a bout of gastroenteritis, which might make the gut more sensitive.

Stress and anxiety:

There is a strong correlation between emotional stress and IBS. IBS can occur to anyone at any stage in their life but commonly the condition starts in early adulthood and can come and go depending on what is happening.

Emotional stress can sensitise the gut making it more likely to react to its contents.


Serotonin is released from specific cells in the gut wall, such as mast cells and enterochromaffin cells, in response to any aspect that can irritate or aggravate the gut. Serotonin can play a large part in making the gut very sensitive and reactive.

Diagnosis and Management

IBS should always be diagnosed by a healthcare professional, who will screen for other conditions (coeliac disease and inflammatory bowel disease) that may give the same symptoms. They will often prescribe medications to reduce abdominal spasm and regulate the bowels, though a small daily dose of antidepressant can ease the condition.

Self care is now recognised as a vital element in the management of IBS. If you have IBS, take the time to understand your own condition. Take note of what brings the symptoms on and what eases it,  what you can eat and when, how to regulate your bowel and your life and what medications can help.

Before seeing your GP about your symptoms, It is useful to keep a bowel diary for a week or so before your appointment to record things such as how many times you go to the toilet, any accidents you have and what you eat or drink. This will not only help your doctor make a diagnosis but it may also highlight an underlying problem causing the symptoms.

Further Information

For further information and more detailed advice about IBS and how to manage it, please contact The IBS Network who are the national charity for people who suffer with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

The IBS Network have their own comprehensive web based self care plan, run a telephone helpline staffed by IBS nurses, facilitate self help groups, offer professional advice by email, and publish a monthly newsletter, Relief, and quarterly magazine, Gut Reaction. 

Please visit their website at or telephone their helpline on 0872 300 4537

For information on specific bowel problems like constipation and diarrhoea, including product and treatment options to help you manage symptoms, please use the drop down menu below.


Last updated: 23/01/2015

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