Irritable bowel syndrome is a medical condition that affects the large intestine and is known to affect around 10 to 15% of the population worldwide. This chronic gastrointestinal disorder occurs 50% more often in women than men.
In more than half the cases of IBS the onset has occurred before 35 years of age, and affects 5 % to 20% of children.
IBS is a condition belonging to a range of complaints identified as functional gastrointestinal disorders. Even though tests indicate that no abnormalities exist, the bowel still functions abnormally.
No direct cause of IBS has been established. However researchers believe they have discovered numerous factors that may trigger the onset of symptoms. Some of these include emotional stress such as depression and anxiety, hormonal issues, some medications and digestive tract infections.
Recent studies suggest that not one but a combination of issues acting on the intestines may be responsible for IBS. Various issues relating to the intestinal wall may activate reactions that alter bowel function.
Also, bowel irritations caused by badly digested food may stimulate the nerves in the intestinal wall. This can result in intestinal sensitivity and pain.
The symptoms of IBS appear to happen as a consequence of an abnormal communication between the nervous system and the bowel.
The Connection between the Brain and the Gastrointestinal Tract (GI)
Some researchers believe that a faulty gut-brain connection may be one reason for IBS symptoms. The brain has a direct effect on the stomach. The gastrointestinal tract (GI) is sensitive to all emotions.
Feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness and even elation activate a response in the gut. Therefore intestinal distress could be the result of feelings of anxiety, depression or other emotions. This is believed to cause abnormal muscle contractions leading to IBS symptoms
The Importance of Serotonin
There is also a belief that a lack of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, may be an important trigger in the symptoms of IBS. Research has found a deficiency of serotonin in the body alters the function of the nerve cells in the bowel. This changes sensation and bowel function.
Serotonin affects our happiness, feelings and emotions, and is an important factor in preventing anxiety and depression. This chemical is found in the central nervous system, blood cells and the gastrointestinal tract, and is a regulator of mood, sleep and appetite.
The Amino Acid Tryptophan
To create serotonin, our body utilizes an amino acid called tryptophan, obtained from high protein foods. Tryptophan, from the protein we eat, is converted into serotonin, melatonin and vitamin B6 by the brain.
Our body cannot make its own tryptophan. Consuming food rich in protein is the only way our body has of obtaining this important amino acid.
Many IBS sufferers have been found to have unusually sensitive intestines and bowels. Because of this, diet has been suggested as a possible contributor to the severity of the symptoms.
However, as no particular food or food allergy has been found it is not considered to be a factor in the onset of the condition.
Long Term Prognosis
There is no determined link between irritable bowel syndrome and the more serious bowel disorders, such as colitis and bowel cancer. Nevertheless the symptoms are often painful and disruptive. It can be unpleasant, embarrassing and cause major trauma to the sufferers. It is a long term problem that has a detrimental effect on the quality of life.