Acommon gastrointestinal disorder, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) usually appears in one of three forms: one that gives you diarrhoea, one that tends to cause constipation, and one that’s a mix of both. The different types of IBS share other symptoms, such as passing wind, abdominal pain and stomach bloating. Although the exact cause is not known, several factors are thought to be responsible, including muscle contractions that are too slow, fast or spasmodic, and glitches in the nerves that transmit signals between the gut and the brain. Environmental changes and stress can also trigger an attack. Research offers another explanation: IBS can develop when segments of the small intestine become overgrown with unhealthy bacteria. This thinking adds new therapies to the list of ways to get your gastrointestinal tract back on track. 

Tried and true
Management: Once you have consulted a doctor and established that you are suffering from IBS, there are a number of ways you may choose to manage your symptoms: changing your lifestyle (for example, establishing new eating routines as well as figuring out ways to avoid stress); reviewing any medication you take that may aggravate the condition; amending your diet by doing things such as increasing dietary fibre and fluids as well as determining what foods trigger an attack and limiting their consumption.

Medication: IBS can be quite painful (as well as being embarrassing), so medicine may be needed when symptoms appear. This may include pain-relievers, anti-diarrhoeal or constipation treatments and antispasmodic medication to ease cramping. Antidepressants may be an option as they can help calm overactive nerves and ease pain, but their use does not necessarily mean that IBS is caused by depression.

Natural approaches
Probiotics: Populating the gut with probiotics can help keep bad bacteria in check. Preliminary studies show probiotics significantly improved symptoms in people with all types of IBS. Some yoghurts and dairy drinks contain some forms of probiotics, and these may help ease symptoms. You can also buy over-the-counter probiotic supplements. 

Peppermint oil: Menthol and methyl salicylate, the main ingredients of peppermint, have antispasmodic effects and so can help calm the digestive tract. Use enteric-coated capsules with a covering that keeps the oil from being released in the stomach, where it can trigger heartburn. 

Surprising solutions
Emotional healing: Stress has long been thought to make IBS symptoms worse, so practices such as yoga and meditation, as well as walking can be helpful. Though experts aren’t sure how stress and IBS connect, they say that when we’re stressed, our bodies are in a chronic state of alertness which may alter nerve signalling between the brain and bowels so we register pain more intensely, or trigger hormone changes that affect the gut. 

Antihistamines: Researchers have found some IBS patients who experience diarrhoea have increased numbers of histamine-producing intestinal mast cells. Histamine, a compound responsible for allergic reactions, can also sensitise a pain receptor in the gut. A Belgian study found that patients who took an antihistamine for 12 weeks had fewer symptoms than those in a control group. 

New medical therapies: Researchers are working on two potential options: prosecretory agents, which increase movement through the large bowel, and may help IBS sufferers whose main issue is constipation; and bile acid modulators which studies suggest will help those with diarrhoea.