Updated 10 August 2017

Irritated by irritable bowel syndrome?

Irritable bowel syndrome is characterised by alternating bouts of diarrhoea and constipation, which are probably related to over-reaction of the intestine to nervous stimulation.

Irritable bowel syndrome has many names, such as mucomembranous colic, spastic constipation, spastic colon, ‘mucous colitis’ and nervous diarrhoea.

Hyperreactive intestines
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is characterised by alternating bouts of diarrhoea and constipation, which are probably related to over-reaction of the intestine to nervous stimulation. Patients tend to suffer pain whenever they pass stools and are often tense and anxious, with erratic heartbeats and exaggerated reflexes. When the abdomen is examined, the colon is tender and palpable. However, tests such as barium enemas and internal examinations generally do not reveal any pathology.

Irritable bowel syndrome is, therefore, believed to be an over-reactive response of the digestive system, especially the colon, to emotional triggers.

Contributing factors
Various factors can make this condition worse, for example, lack of fibre in the diet, a nervous, anxious disposition and excessive stress. If you suffer from IBS, ask yourself if you are eating sufficient dietary fibre, if you are over-anxious, and if you are exposed to too much stress.

If you are excessively nervous or anxious, then you need to consult a clinical psychologist and obtain help to face whatever problem in your past or present is causing your anxiety.

If you are exposed to excessive stress, then you also need to get help to alleviate this problem. Contact you local crisis centre, Life Line, a psychologist or social worker. Living with stress is not good for your health and your bowel symptoms may be the way in which your body is sending out a signal for help. Do something about the problem before it overwhelms you and you develop more serious conditions than an irritable bowel.

Exercise and relaxation
There are many different types of gentle exercise which can help you not only to de-stress, but also get your bowel motions back to normal. Yoga is probably the most relaxing exercise regimen available. Try and join a yoga class which emphasises relaxation and deep breathing. Taking leisurely walks in the fresh air is also a good idea. If you join Walk for Life you will always have fellow walkers to chat to when you exercise, which is a pleasant way of getting rid of tension.

There are also a number of specific relaxation techniques that can be helpful. Aromatherapy and reflexology are wonderful ways of getting rid of stress and making every part of your body, including your intestines, relax.

Lack of dietary fibre
If you are eating too little fibre, then try including the following foods in your diet.

Good sources of dietary fibre
Foods rich in dietary fibre are:

  • Wholewheat or brown bread, minimally processed cereals, such a brown rice, unsifted maize meal, sorghum porridge (Maltabella), bran-rich breakfast cereals and products like muffins made with bran cereal and/or wheat bran (obtainable from your local health shop)
  • Raw, unpeeled fruit and vegetables, or lightly cooked vegetables, jackets potatoes, fresh, fruit juices, and dried fruit soaked and/or boiled with honey
  • Legumes, such as dry beans, peas and lentils, and products made from legumes or soya (Toppers, textured vegetable protein, tofu, tempe)
  • Commercial high-fibre products which can be obtained from your chemist or health shop, such as Fybogel

How to increase your fibre intake
Start eating additional dietary fibre in small quantities and increase your intake every few days. Don’t start off by eating cups of bran or legumes, as this may cause other digestive upsets. Let your system get used to one tablespoon of bran a day and when you are comfortable with this, increase your intake gradually.

Always remember to drink 4-5 glasses of water in addition to your normal fluid intake. Water helps dietary fibre to swell and provide bulk in the intestines, thus improving regularity.

However, overdoing water intake is also not a good idea and can lead to problems, including low calcium, magnesium and potassium levels. So drink some additional water, but don’t overdo things. - (Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc)


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