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Outsmart irritable bowel syndrome

Take control of an irritable bowel

Have you ever avoided outdoor events because you might not find a rest room - or skipped social situations because food would be served ? Do sudden, unexpected trips to the bathroom sometimes make you late for work or appointments ? If this sounds like you, you may suffer from irritable bowel syndrome.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), also known as "spastic colon" or "irritable colon," is actually a set of chronic digestive symptoms rather than a disease. If you have IBS, there is nothing physically wrong with your gastrointestinal tract. That may be hard for you to believe since you probably have symptoms like abdominal pain and cramping, painful gas, bloating, alternating constipation and diarrhea - which can lead to hemorrhoids - and sometimes nausea, headache, and fatigue, too.

IBS is one of the leading causes of employee absenteeism in the United States, but most IBS sufferers are too embarrassed to discuss it. Yet people with IBS would like nothing better than to know what causes it and how to stop it. As Johns Hopkins Professor Marvin M. Schulster says, "This syndrome won't kill anyone, although some victims occasionally wish it would."

While doctors don't know for sure what causes IBS, stress and diet are the most likely answers. Eating normally triggers contractions of your colon, which often leads to a bowel movement 30 to 60 minutes after a meal. Many people with IBS, however, may have cramps and diarrhea much sooner after a meal. The strength of those contractions may depend on what and how much you eat. Fat in particular - as well as stress - seem to set off strong colon contractions in people with IBS.

IBS affects more women than men, and symptoms usually begin in your 20s or 30s, but seldom after age 55. IBS isn't life-threatening, but it can make your life difficult. Don't resign yourself to being a victim, though, since you can usually control it with a few diet and lifestyle changes.

Your goal is to get your stomach to react more normally to food and stress. Most people's intestines squeeze gently and steadily to move food along the digestive path. Food is either broken down and absorbed or eliminated as waste.

If you have IBS, however, your intestines either squeeze too hard or not hard enough. Sometimes, undigested food is rushed painfully through your system, causing cramps, diarrhea, and the strong urge to find a rest room - especially right after you get up in the morning or right after you eat. These symptoms are probably very familiar if you have "diarrhea-pre-dominant" IBS.

Other times, sluggish intestines let food sit in place, leading to constipation and bloating. You may also experience gas, nausea, heartburn, mucous-covered stools, stomach gurgling, and a feeling like you still need to have a bowel movement when you just had one. You may have nausea or heartburn, too. These symptoms happen more often if you have "constipation-predominant" IBS - and are often triggered just by eating.

Anyone over 40 with these symptoms should rule out digestive diseases like colitis ( inflammation of the colon ), and other look-alike conditions. To do so, your doctor will probably examine your colon with a flexible tube known as a sigmoidoscope.

Once you've determined that you do have IBS, you can take tried-and-true steps to control the syndrome and its symptoms.


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