Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is believed to be one of the most common disorders that doctors see.
It is believed that around 15 percent of high-school-aged adolescents suffer from IBS and up to 10 percent of middle-school-aged children do as well. This disorder is the cause of quite a few missed school days each year, yet it's not something most people are comfortable talking openly about.
As hard as it is for adults to talk about, it's even harder for a child. Parents can take some steps to help their children with IBS by understanding what it is, what causes it and the best treatment options.
"Irritable bowel syndrome falls in a broader category of disorders called functional bowel disease," says Dr. Benjamin Gold, associate professor of pediatrics and microbiology and director of the division of pediatric gastroenterology at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Ga. "There are sets of either upper or lower gastrointestinal symptoms and signs which can cause significant negative impact on the child's quality of life and can impact the functioning of the whole family unit."
In truth, IBS is a functional disorder that leaves many people with abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea and sometimes constipation. The classic definition, according to Dr. Gold, is having three attacks of pain during a three-month period with them being severe enough to affect activities and having no organic cause that is identified.
The condition is not believed to increase the risk of colon cancer and does not cause an inflammation in the bowel tissue. Oftentimes the symptoms are brought on by stress. Research shows that females are two to three times more likely to get the condition and that the symptoms appear to be worse during menstruation.
"Irritable bowel syndrome is characterized as a brain-gut dysfunction, which means that the brain-gut interaction of people with IBS influences their bowel pain perception and motility," says Heather Van Vorous, author of Eating for IBS: 175 Delicious, Nutritious,, Low-Fat, Low-Residue Recipes to Stabilize the Touchiest Tummy (Marlowe & Company, 2000) and The First Year – IBS: An Essential Guide for the Newly Diagnosed (Marlowe & Company, 2001). She also is the president of HelpforIBS.com, the largest online community for the disorder and has had IBS since the age of 9, so she has a firsthand understanding of what it's like to grow up with the condition.
Van Vorous explains that for people with IBS, the interaction between brain, central nervous system and gastrointestinal systems does not function properly. People with IBS have colons that react to stimuli that other people would not have reactions to.
Causes and Prevention
Medical professionals seem to agree that no one really knows for sure what causes IBS. For most people, the intestines work in a coordinated rhythm, contracting and relaxing to move food from the stomach through the intestinal tract. Those with IBS experience a similar reaction but their contractions last longer and are stronger. This causes the food to get moved through the intestines at an increased or decreased rate, causing pain, bloating and gas. If the food gets moved through quickly, the result is diarrhea; if it moves through slowly, it can lead to constipation.
Although there are no exact causes that can be found for the disorder, there are some preventive measures that one can try. The Mayo Clinic suggests those that have stress-related IBS learn to find ways to reduce stress, such as getting regular exercise, yoga, practicing deep breathing and taking 20 minutes a day to do something calming like taking a bath or reading.
Until the exact causes for the disorder are known, the best option for treatment includes managing stress and diet. For many, managing IBS through diet seems to be a successful way of countering the symptoms.
"The IBS diet is based on soluble fiber, which is the single greatest dietary aid for preventing IBS symptoms in the first place, as well as relieving them once they occur," Van Vorous says.
Some good steps to follow when helping to treat IBS through diet include the following:
- Be sure to get plenty of fiber and water on a daily basis.
- Keep fat intake under control with no more than 25 percent of total calories coming from fat.
- Eliminate or reduce intake of dairy products. Try alternatives like soy replacements or lactose-free dairy products.
- Avoid eating red meat and fried foods. Try using vegetarian meat alternatives.
- Steer clear of caffeine, carbonation and soda pop.
- Avoid eating high fat foods on an empty stomach, or avoid eating them altogether.
- Eat small, frequent portions at a slow pace, and don't rush through meals.
- Eat on a regular schedule each day, and avoid skipping meals.
Managing stress and discussing concerns and problems is a beneficial step to take. "One of the best ways to lessen the symptoms of IBS is to talk to the patient in detail about it," says Dr. Dave Olson, a physician at the Grand Traverse Children's Clinic in Traverse City, Mich. "This alone has been shown to lessen subsequent intensity of their symptoms." Although there are some anti-spasmodic medications that are available to help with the symptoms, they have had varying success.
Also, "Limit investigations that are performed on the child," Dr. Gold says. He explains that when a child is put through many tests to find a cause of the pain, the process can reinforce the impression that there is something seriously "wrong" with them.
An important thing to know and understand about IBS is that it isn't something that goes away. Rather, it's a condition that one must accept and manage. Those that have it as a child will likely continue to have it in their adulthood. Managing the condition through diet, stress reduction and learning to cope with the symptoms is the best and most effective way to keep it from getting in the way of life.
"Irritable bowel syndrome is a long-term condition, and one needs to realize that there are no consistent cures," Dr. Olson says. "Learning to live with the symptoms and conducting your life in a reasonably normal fashion while afflicted is good advice."