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Irritable Bowel Syndrome Causes and Treatment

Updated on January 27, 2010

Your gut is a very long tube lined with a wet membrane, and with bands of muscle running along and around the tube. Food goes into one end of the tube, and feces comes out the other end. The movement of the food from one end to the other is the result of rhythmic contractions of the muscles in the gut wall. This sends waves and ripples along the gut, always pushing the food further down. Nutrients are removed from the gut as the food moves along, and only the non-absorbable fiber and roughage remains to be passed out through the anus.

Our modern diet tends to consist of large quantities of refined foods that have remarkably little fiber content. As a result, the bulk of our feces is far less than that of our forefathers and those who live in primitive societies. When the muscles in the gut contract, they may have very little in the way of feces to push along, and this may lead to spasm of the gut. People with tense personalities or continuing stress will find that their 'stomach is in knots'. This is merely the sensation that the intestine is acting more rapidly than is necessary due to the overstimulation of the nervous system. Over a number of years, the combination of a low-fiber diet, anxiety, stress and hereditary factors may lead to the development of the irritable bowel syndrome. This syndrome is characterized by abdominal pain caused by intense spasms of the bowel muscle, alternating constipation and diarrhea, passage of wind by mouth and anus, nausea, loss of appetite and mucus on the stools. Once established, the pattern may be very difficult to break, as the symptoms cause further anxiety in the victim, which in turn exacerbates the original symptoms. The disease has been given many different names over the years, and may also be known as nervous dyspepsia, mucus colitis and functional indigestion.

There are no definite tests to prove the presence of the syndrome, and so all other causes of the symptoms must be excluded by exhaustive tests. An X-ray of the large intestine (a barium enema) may show the excessive spasms of the gut in some patients.

Once diagnosed, the treatment consists of a diet high in fiber and low in dairy products and processed foods. High-fiber dietary supplements are often recommended. Regular meal and toilet habits should be established, and tobacco and alcohol intake should be restricted. Reassurance is very important, and anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants and psychotherapy may all prove useful. In the acute situation, doctors can prescribe one or more of a number of drugs that are used to reduce the activity of gut muscles. Occasionally pain-killers are also necessary.

The usual course is for the syndrome to occur intermittently over many years. The continued attention by a sympathetic doctor is necessary for all sufferers because the greater the confidence the patient has in the treatment and the doctor, the more likely the regime is to succeed.

Please Note:


  • The information provided on this page is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a registered physician or other healthcare professional.

  • The content of this page is intended only to provide a summary and general overview. Do not use this information to disregard medical advice, nor to delay seeking medical advice.

  • Be sure to consult with your doctor for a professional diagnosis and appropriate medical treatment.

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