You know the feeling—you’re about to do something really important and suddenly you urgently need the loo. It’s as if your brain has blared a red alert to your bowel, “I’m nervous and I have to go now!”
But for many women, rushing to the toilet is an everyday, far too frequent experience. Estimates suggest a fifth of us have IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). This extremely common gut condition tends to be long term and may come and go. There is no test to confirm it nor is there an absolute cure.
With so many millions affected symptoms inevitably vary, ranging from negligibly mild to startlingly severe. But the most common complaint is pain, often described as colicky and achy. Toilet habits are changed. Bloating, nausea, vomiting, headaches, tiredness, backache, and wind are abundant too.
Shelly, 29, says she’d always had a “sensitive” stomach. “I used to swig baby’s gripe water from the bottle in my teens to ease indigestion,” she told me. But when she returned to college to train a nurse after years working as a waitress, the awful stomach cramps kicked in.
“Either I’d be constipated for days, or I’d be glued to the loo,” says Shelly. “My housemates became very irritated by the constant toilet flushing. It was really embarrassing.”
Undoubtedly that embarrassment is part of the problem. It’s a brave and unusually uninhibited person who is totally upfront about their bowel habits. In fact, our general consensus is “don’t even go there!”
Which makes talking about and tackling IBS much more of an uphill struggle.
A recent study found almost 40 percent of sufferers keep their IBS secret even from partners or immediate family. Eighty-seven percent wouldn’t dream about telling their employers. Most don’t spill the beans to their close friends. This is despite the fact that IBS is often all-consuming, and can seriously affect work, relationships, and ultimately dent self-esteem.
Indeed, Shelly blames it for the loss of her boyfriend. “I was always worn out and feeling down,” she told me. “The diarrhea was so yucky I’d lost lots of weight. I looked drawn and my jeans hung off me. Sex was the last thing I felt like, which caused a terminal rift between me and my boyfriend.”
Shelly went to her doctor, who did a rectal examination, a blood test, and asked for a stool sample to test for infection. All came back as normal. “That only really left IBS, according to my doctor,” says Shelly. “He offered me antidepressants, but I refused them.”
At least Shelly’s GP took her seriously. Too often people with IBS report being fobbed off by the medical profession.
Lucy, 24, traipsed back and forth to her GP’s practice for ten years, complaining of stomach pains, diarrhea, and constipation.
“I had the distinct impression they thought I was wasting their time,” she told me. “One doctor said I had growing pains. Another told me my problem was emotional, what ever that means.”
In the end, Lucy demanded a referral to the local hospital’s gastroenterology department. “I had a load of tests—x-rays, enemas, a tube down my throat, another up my behind. They showed I wasn’t suffering from any sinister disease. What was wrong with me had to be IBS.”
Lucy was given an armful of medication—laxatives, antispasmodics, and pills to treat a loose tummy. But it was her research that really made a difference.
“The first thing I did was stopped chewing sugar-free gum because I read the artificial sweetener sorbitol can be an irritant,” she explains. “I also learned that certain foods can aggravate the bowel in some people. So I decided to keep a food diary.”
That’s how Lucy discovered spicy foods, citrus, and caffeine triggered her IBS, so she cut them out.
Shelly came to the conclusion completely different foods were making her unwell. With the help of a nutritionist who conducted food sensitively tests, Shelly discovered an intolerance to wheat, yeast, red meat, and dairy products.
And now although she still finds it hard to be deprived of most bread, cake, and pasta, her IBS is much better.
“I also take peppermint oil capsules when I’m windy, and drink yogurts with friendly bacteria,” she explains.
Both women say helping themselves has been more effective than anything they’ve received from a doctor.
“I know my body best,” says Lucy. “And I’m certain stress is a big trigger. That’s why I exercise to let off steam, and ensure I have a couple of quiet nights in each week.”
Shelly agrees. ‘I’m sure having exams again sparked my IBS. Then it was like a vicious circle because my bad stomach made me feel anxious and down. Hypnotherapy has really helped relax me.”
It’s clear that IBS is a complex and controversial condition. What works for some people, may do nothing for others.
But one thing is certain, there is much more to discover on this subject out there….