More than 15 per cent of the UK population suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This causes abdominal discomfort, bloating and tiredness, as well as unpredictable diarrhoea and/or constipation. Although it is not life-threatening, it’s a disruptive condition for which there is no specific test and which has a significant impact on quality of life.
The good news is that exciting new research has shown that changing the balance of bacteria in your gut can significantly improve symptoms of IBS. How? By a procedure called a faecal microbiota transplant.
IBS is still not well understood and is mainly a ‘diagnosis of exclusion’. In other words, it is what is left after other medical conditions are ruled out. Despite taking medication to help relieve symptoms, some people can feel almost housebound.
But now that we can identify the microbes living in our large intestines, we have been able to find out which ones are beneficial and the ones that cause problems. We now know that the mix of microbes in people with IBS is different to that found in healthy individuals. The greater the diversity of microbes, the healthier your microbiome (all the bugs in your gut). Unfortunately, our Western diet, sedentary lifestyle, stress and use of antibiotics contribute to damaging the delicate balance of microbes, killing off many of the good guys. This is a significant factor in the rise of IBS.
Research by Professor El-Salhy in Norway has shown the benefits of transplanting a healthy mix of gut bacteria from a ‘super pooper’ (a donor with an ideal gut profile) to patients with IBS. The patients were randomly allocated to receive a sample either from a donor or a placebo, which was delivered via a tube into the intestine. After three months, three quarters of the patients who had been given donor material had reduced symptoms, a better quality of life and a healthier microbiome.
If you have IBS, you may not be rushing to have a gut microbe transplant, but it’s an important reminder of the benefit of nurturing those bugs.
So what else can you do? Talk to your doctor about reducing pain and treating diarrhoea or constipation. There is also evidence that adding gut-friendly bacteria (probiotics) such as bifidobacteria and lactobacillus, available as supplements, can decrease bloating. Cutting down on processed and sugary foods, becoming more active, reducing stress and improving sleep should help. Giving your gut a chance to repair by doing intermittent fasting can also be beneficial.
You may want to consider a diet that excludes FODMAPs, too. These are a group of sugars naturally found in many foods and additives that may not be properly digested or absorbed in our intestines. As a result they lead to extra fluid and gas stretching the intestinal wall, causing pain and discomfort. Confusingly, many of the foods excluded, such as various fruits and vegetables, rye, onions, garlic, beans and pulses, are usually beneficial for a healthy gut. As the gut recovers, the foods may be gradually reintroduced. It is best done with the support of a dietician or nutritionist, which may be available on the NHS.
Short cuts to healthy eating
I have just discovered the best low-tech kitchen gadget. The QuickPull Food Chopper (£14.99, amazon.co.uk) is like a mini salad spinner with a pull cord – and sharp blades. Pull the cord and your salad, veg, herbs or fruit are chopped in seconds. Surprisingly satisfying! My current favourite creation using it is this tasty salsa: I throw in roughly cut cucumber, red onions, cherry tomatoes and parsley then pull the cord a few times to blitz it. Tip it into a bowl, drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, scatter with black pepper and salt, along with a few drops of Tabasco, then mix it together. Simple.
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