Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

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Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or 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. So what are the Symptoms of IBS? What are the causes, and how can you manage irritable bowel syndrome?

Common symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

IBS symptoms vary from person to person and 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 stomach noises
  • 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.

The below webinar contains an overview of what to do once you have been diagnosed, and you’ll find more information on this topic below.

Causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome affects about 1 in 5 of the UK population, and most of these are Women – Dr Dawn Harper, GP

Sensitivity to Food

Symptoms of IBS are often triggered by a meal, but only very rarely due to a specific food allergy. People with the condition 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.


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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 Irritable Bowel Syndrome. 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.


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

Diagnosis and Management

Irritable Bowel Syndrome 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.

Managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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.

You can find a list of standard options for treating your condition on our IBS treatments page. Make sure you discuss options with your GP before starting any course of medication.

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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 from Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

The IBS Network have their own comprehensive web-based self-care plan, run a telephone helpline staffed by specialist 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 0114 272 3253.

Alternatively you can access further information sheets and more via the NHS patient webinars.