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Living with IBS                   Archive


Olive Braman provides a vivid picture of one woman’s struggle with Irritable Bowel Disease  

Helen Evans has suffered from IBS for all of her adult life. Unlike others with this condition, she does not experience diarrhoea or constipation, but she frequently gets agonising spasms -“mid gut pain” - and can be doubled up in agony. The condition comes and goes in waves but at it’s most acute she is sick and often faints.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects between 20% - 30% of the UK population It is described as “a collection of symptoms relating to the large bowel”. These can include abdominal pain and spasm, diarrhoea, constipation, urgency and incontinence. There is no absolute cure, though

anti-spasmodic and anti-depressant drugs can relieve the pain of cramping. 

For Helen, symptoms started when she was in her twenties and teaching in the West Indies. “At first I thought it must be due to the change of diet , but the doctor must have suspected psychological reasons. He suddenly asked me if I was happy there and I had to answer that I wasn’t. I found the climate and the teaching difficult to cope with. However, even when I gave up the job, the symptoms persisted and I have lived with them ever since. For years I was described as having a nervous stomach.”

IBS affects those with unusually sensitive colons. It can be provoked by eating and stress, and in some cases can be triggered by gastro enteritis. It is more common among women than men. Ultimately, we know very little about the cause.

Helen had an exploratory operation some years ago but nothing was discovered.  She consulted specialists  and dieticians, had barium meals and x rays, and thinks that she must have read every book published on IBS. But the only time that she has been free of symptoms was when she was pregnant.

“That was quite a bonus, of course, but hardly a cure,” she says.” I am sure that my state of mind has an effect, but I have kept my own food diaries and know now that certain foods are lethal for me.

 “I can’t eat raw onions or peppers, curry or lemon juice. I once drank a glass of lemon juice in the mistaken belief that it would cure my skin of spots and was doubled up in pain almost immediately and lay in agony for the next 24 hours. Reheated foods, many ready-made meals, very fresh bread, strong coffee and acid fruits are also dynamite. Going out for dinner can prove a minefield.. These days I warn people, but when I was much younger and we were entertained by my husband’s colleagues it was less easy. There was one ocasion where I couldn’t eat a thing. We had grapefruit, followed by chilli, then a rich chocolate pudding – it was a bit embarrassing.”

She gets depressed at times too. “When the pain really hurts badly I start to suspect that there must be something seriously wrong with me and I get very miserable. I have been prescribed antidepressants which make me feel foul, though valium does help me sleep. Despite all my precautions, IBS  can still take me unawares. In a good phase I can enjoy the odd glass of wine with food but I can’t touch fizzy drinks of any sort.”

Sadly, all of this has destroyed totally Helen’s pleasure in food. Eating, she says, has become just a duty. At just under nine stone she is slim, and apart from the IBS very healthy, although at times her weight has dropped as low as seven stone.

Helen suffers from bloating during the attacks. “On these occasions, when I stand sideways I look pregnant”. Clothing  becomes a problem. Elastic tights are uncomfortable and so are skirts or trousers with fitted waist bands. She now looks for drawstring waists and tends to wear loose tops which cover her midriff.

“I recommend that anyone with IBS looks for an understanding partner,” she says. “My husband is supportive when I have an attack and he also warns me about things I should not eat. Within the limits of masculine empathy he is really very good, but I do wish that he’d learn to cook. When you’re lying in bed clutching a hot water bottle to your stomach and thinking that death seems like a good option, the last thing you want is to find  a half-cooked stew being held to your face and someone asking if you think that it’s ready to eat.”

As an IBS sufferer, Helen has learned a trick or two which she now passes on to fellow victims.

1. Timing of meals

“I must have my main meal at lunchtime. It is asking for trouble if I eat and then lie down soon after. If we have to eat at night I don’t have much and, if possible, I take some exercise. I guess if the food has worked its way through a certain section in my gut it’s alright. “

2. Think before you travel abroad

Foreign travel and especially foreign food can make life difficult. When her husband wanted to visit India Helen elected to stay in England.

 “Whenever we travel, I approach the food with great caution and always take oatmeal biscuits to keep myself from starvation if it turns out not to suit me.”

3. Accept that an attack can last 24 hours

“Over the years doctors have prescribed all sorts of things to relax the system and I have found them absolutely useless. Once an attack starts it is going to take 24 hours to run its course.”

4. Complimentary treatments help some people

Helen has tried naturopathy, acupuncture and stomach massage –  and has found the latter of some help. For more information, contact the IBS Network, see below. Hypnotherapy can improve symptoms in some cases. Taking a daily probiotic such as Yakult sees some results according to research. There have been some recent reports that turmeric reduces cramps and bloating (1 – 2g daily of turmeric powder in food or water).

5. Join the IBS Network

Many people have benefited from the IBS Network, which allows them to talk freely about their condition and learn about the latest treatments. Some people find hypnotherapy helpful, others improve by increasing their dietary fibre, reducing fat, avoiding dairy products, bread and cereals and eating regular balanced meals.  Regular exercise and avoiding stress are also recommended.  

The IBS Network is a national charity which offers support, information and advice  on IBS and can be contacted through its website:, telephone 0114 2611531 or helpline 01543 492 192 (Monday to Friday 6pm to 8pm). The Digestive Disorders Foundation funds medical research into the prevention, cure and treatments of all forms of digestive disorders. DDF, PO Box 251, Edgware, Middlesex 6HG. Send SAE for leaflets and fact sheets.     


`Nervous tension diarrhoea`  

15 million people in Britain affected by diarrhoea as a result of nerves

New research indicates that nearly 15 million people in the UK suffer from bouts of diarrhoea when faced with nerve-racking situations. Despite the prevalence of 'nervous tension diarrhoea' (NTD), nearly half of sufferers choose not to treat their condition, which suggests that on the whole it doesn’t bother them.  

A new campaign from ImodiumTM aims to help people understand how emotions affect our bodies, especially their effect on the bowel. The goal of the campaign is to educate people on how to avoid getting nervous or stressed before a big event and therefore, hopefully, avoid a bout of nervous tension diarrhoea. It also aims to inform people of the best ways to treat this diarrhoea should they be affected.  

This latest survey from ImodiumTM confirms that experiencing diarrhoea as a result of nerves is a common occurrence. 28% (and 40% of women) have experienced diarrhoea because of a nerve-racking event. Most often tummy troubles occurred when going to an interview, starting a new job or resigning (15%) or before exams (11%). Three times as many women as men suffered nervous tension diarrhoea, particularly when it came to an interview, starting a new job or resigning (24% of women compared to only 7% of men).  

Although the survey clearly demonstrates that experiencing nervous tension diarrhoea can impinge on enjoyment or performance at an important event, a significant proportion of those sufferers interviewed were still reluctant to treat the diarrhoea. The majority (57%) felt it was not serious enough to treat and/or preferred to let the diarrhoea ‘take its natural course’ (35%).  

In June 2001 an independent panel of experts published its review of the studies on the treatment of diarrhoea by self-medication and produced new guidelines on its management. These state that for otherwise healthy adults, self-medication for short-lived episodes of uncomplicated diarrhoea is effective and relieves discomfort and social disruption.  

Imodium, which has a vested interest in these things, has produced a free booklet entitled “Your guide to treating and understanding diarrhoea”, which provides useful information about avoiding and treating different types of diarrhoea, including diarrhoea caused by nerves or stress. The booklet includes tips from Dr Rosemary Anderson, stress consultant and chair of the International Stress Management Association (ISMA) UK, on how to cope with nerve-racking events, control nerves and anxiety, and hopefully avoid those untimely bouts of diarrhoea.  

Dr Anderson’s advice includes:

1.   Adopt a healthy lifestyle. If we eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and ensure we get adequate rest we can better cope with stress.

2.   Know your limitations and do not take on too much. We cause ourselves a great deal of stress because we do not like to say no to people.

3.   Avoid unnecessary conflict. Don’t be too argumentative. Is it really worth the stress?

4.   Take time out to relax and recharge your batteries. You will perform much better after a break and easily make up the time you used relaxing.

5.   Find time to meet friends. Friends help us see things in a different way.  Laughter is a great stress reducer. It boosts the immune system which is often depleted during stress.

6.   If you do become stressed, engage in some form of physical activity and relaxation technique.  Physical activity will work off the biochemical and physical changes that occur within your body due to stress.  Relaxation helps your body return to its normal healthy state. Good relaxation techniques include breathing exercises, massage and a variety of complimentary therapies.  

If you have diarrhoea, taking an anti-diarrhoeal such as Imodium™ Plus Caplets means that you can get on with your day and perform without having to worry about your tummy troubles. Imodium™ Plus is a unique combination of loperamide, which works to stop diarrhoea by helping restore your digestive system back to its normal rhythm, and simethicone, an anti-flatulent to help relieve the associated diarrhoea symptoms of cramps, wind and bloating.  Imodium™ Plus is available as chewable tablets or in new easy-to-swallow caplets*.  


How is nervous tension diarrhoea caused?

Diarrhoea occurs when something upsets the balance of your ‘highly tuned’ digestive system.  

The action of the muscles in the intestines (or ‘peristalsis’), which ensures smooth flow of food through the digestive system, is controlled by the specialised enteric nervous system, which is also connected to the central nervous system (brain)  

When you are nervous, your body produces adrenaline - a hormone that is referred to as the ‘fight, flight, fright’ hormone - as well as other powerful chemicals. These affect your central nervous system, which then speeds everything up in your body, including your intestines via the enteric nervous system.  

When the gut speeds up, the intestines absorb less fluid than normal back into your body so your stools become loose and watery.  Just a 1% reduction in the amount of fluid absorbed by the intestines can lead to an attack of diarrhoea.

For more information, pack shots / lifestyle photography or a case study, please contact:

Mel Edrich / Andrew Knill

Harvard Health

020 7349 6388 / 

* Always read the label. Ask your pharmacist for advice.    



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