Irritable bowel syndrome

Also known as ‘IBS’for short, this is a chronic illness which affects the gastrointestinal tract and causes abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea or constipation.

The symptoms of this illness come and go: there are periods where you will have a ‘flare up’- due to stress or depression and other times where nothing happens.

There is no single cause of IBS but there are several factors which include:

  • Genetics
  • Stress
  • Weakened immune system
  • Abnormal function of the muscles within the digestive tract

But the crucial factor here is food poisoning.

Irritable bowel syndrome as a long term consequence of food poisoning

You rightly assume that a bout of food poisoning is a short term affair which resolves itself without any long term effects. That is normally the case but a report by an American health organisation has found that food poisoning can lead to long term health problems.

This includes irritable bowel syndrome.

The Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention ( has produced a report which argues that more research is needed into the long term effects of food poisoning (or foodborne illness) which can lead to chronic health issues such as high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney failure and irritable bowel syndrome.

This report mentions 5 potential sources of food poisoning, in particular the e coli bacteria which can cause complications such as haemolytic uraemic syndrome, which often leads to kidney failure, gallstones and irritable bowel syndrome.

It also states that food poisoning is a known risk factor for irritable bowel syndrome and in fact, has its own version known as ‘post-infectious irritable bowel syndrome’ (PI-IBS). This can occur following a bout of bacterial food poisoning.

The reason for this is that the infection caused during food poisoning affects the function of the gastrointestinal tract and increases its sensitivity. This combined with a change in the immune system results in an increased amount of inflammatory chemicals. This predisposes the infected person to IBS.

(Source: The Environmental Illness Resource:

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome

People with IBS find that one symptom dominates above all, for example, constipation. They also find that their symptoms worsen after a meal or if they are stressed.

Symptoms include:

  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain/cramping
  • Flatulence
  • Urgent need to defecate
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhoea or constipation
  • Indigestion
  • Headache
  • Back pain
  • Bladder problems, e.g. frequent urination

You may notice mucus in your stool after visiting the toilet.

These symptoms usually last for 2 to 3 days before subsiding. They are intermittent and only appear when you are under psychological stress, for example divorce.

Certain foods trigger a bout of IBS and include spicy foods, tea, coffee and high fat foods.

Medication such as ibuprofen and antibiotics can also trigger IBS, and in some cases, increase the severity of the symptoms.

Diagnosing irritable bowel syndrome

Your GP will ask you about your symptoms before carrying out a physical examination. He/she will ask you a series of questions about your bowel movements and if you have passed any mucus.

You may be embarrassed by this but it is important to be frank and honest with your GP as these symptoms may indicate other health problems such as coeliac disease.

If you have recently had an episode of food poisoning then also mention this as irritable bowel syndrome is a complication of this.

Your GP will refer you for blood tests and a procedure called ‘sigmoidoscopy’. This involves the insertion of a slim tube called an endoscope into your bowel to check for any abnormalities. It may also involve the removal of a small sample of tissue from your bowel – known as a biopsy, which is then sent to a laboratory for analysis.

He or she may refer you for further tests such as a barium enema or a stool sample. A barium enema involves the insertion of a tube into your back passage into which a special liquid is passed through which shows up on an X-ray.

This liquid or ‘barium’will highlight any inflamed areas within your bowel.

A stool sample involves you providing a small sample of faeces which is then sent away for laboratory analysis.

Treatment for irritable bowel syndrome

There is no cure for irritable bowel syndrome but there are several ways of easing the symptoms which include:

  • Healthy diet
  • Exercise
  • Reduce stress levels
  • Probiotics
  • Medication
  • Complimentary therapy

Healthy diet

You may need to increase or reduce the amount of fibre within your diet depending upon your symptoms. Reduce the amount of caffeine you consume and drink plenty of water or herbal teas instead.

Eat regularly and often and avoid fatty, rich foods.

Your GP will be able to advise you further about a suitable diet. Everyone is different in this aspect and you will need to try a few different foods to find what suits you.


This can alleviate the symptoms as well as being good for your overall health and fitness. Choose something you enjoy and know that you will stick at and aim to exercise for around a minimum of 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.

Ask your GP for advice about suitable forms of exercise.

Reduce stress levels

Stress is a factor for IBS and can also trigger a ‘flare up’. Look for ways of reducing this, for example meditation or Tai Chi. Exercise can also help.


These are a type of diet supplement - usually available as yoghurt, which contain ‘friendly bacteria’. They can be purchased at any supermarket or food outlet and may help to ease the symptoms of IBS.

Check first with your GP.


These are not designed to cure IBS but rather they ease the symptoms instead. They include both over the counter and prescription medicines.

Examples include:

  • Anti-diarrhoea medication, e.g. Imodium
  • Laxatives, e.g. senna
  • Anti-spasmodic medication (reduce abdominal cramps)

If you are thinking of taking any painkillers, for example paracetamol, aspirin or ibuprofen then only take paracetamol. Ibuprofen and aspirin can worsen the symptoms of IBS.

If you are uncertain what to take then speak to your GP or pharmacist first before purchasing any medication.

Irritable bowel syndrome can cause anxiety or depression but there is treatment available for this which includes psychotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy which can help.

Food Poisoning Guide

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