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What it's like to be a student with IBS


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According to The IBS Network, a UK charity dedicated to supporting people with IBS, around 10-20% of people in the UK suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

April is IBS Awareness Month and although it can be awkward and uncomfortable to talk about anything bowel and poo related, it is an important conversation to have. 

Image Credit: derneuemann on Pixabay

What is IBS? 

IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) symptoms can affect all aspects of life, such as socialising, eating, drinking and sleeping. Symptoms can include stomach cramps, excess gas, constipation, diarrhoea, passing mucus, tiredness and fatigue, nausea, using the toilet often, incontinence and bloating - and these can also take a toll on a sufferer’s mental health. 

Doctors typically diagnose IBS when other possibilities have been ruled out, including Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), Coeliac Disease or infections, and these tests can include a stool sample, a blood test or a colonoscopy. Certain symptoms can also be confused with other illnesses and diseases, particularly ovarian cancer, which is often characterised by constant bloating, pelvic discomfort, change in appetite and peeing more frequently. However, it is important to emphasise that IBS is more common and more likely. 

It is crucial to visit a pharmacy or GP and it can be helpful to note every symptom you experience. You know your own body, so ask for a second opinion if you feel something isn’t quite right.

You’ve been diagnosed – what can you do about it?

There is currently no 'cure' for IBS, but there are things that sufferers can do to help lessen and manage their symptoms. 

 Image Credit: stevepb on Pixabay.

1. Diet 

Diet is probably the most important but tricky step is figuring out what foods do and don’t irritate your digestive system. Everyone is different and what you may react badly to, someone else may be able to consume just fine. The NHS website suggests reducing intake of spicy, fatty or processed foods, not eating more than three portions of fruit a day, reducing intake of alcohol, caffeine and fizzy drinks, and not skipping meals.

NICE guidelines also recommend keeping a food diary to see how you react to certain foods and change your diet according to your symptoms, whether that be diarrhoea or constipation, and if symptoms persist ask to be referred to a dietician. Probiotics are also often suggested as there is some evidence that they may restore the natural balance of bacteria in the gut. The IBS Network also has a helpful sheet on a low FODMAP diet, which involves avoiding food which is not easily broken down by the gut and includes certain types of fruits and vegetables, milk and wheat products. Drinking enough water is always helpful.

2. Exercise

Not only is exercise helpful physically, but it is also helpful for stress and anxiety symptoms. So if your stomach cramps or symptoms get worse with stress, this may help.

3. Medication

NICE guidelines list a number of medications that could be prescribed to help symptoms, such as antidepressants, which can help with pain or address a comorbid mental illness. Antispasmodics such as mebeverine or peppermint oil to help with cramps and anti-diarrheal medications or laxatives. However, some of these are also available without a prescription.

4. Therapy and Support Groups

Talking therapy can help address underlying mental health issues and CBT can give you strategies and healthy coping mechanisms to deal with times of stress, including cramps. IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) NHS services run across the UK and you can self-refer or ask your GP about them. The IBS Network also run support groups across the country.

5. Work/university

Having a job or lectures to attend can make life difficult if you’re struggling with pain, diarrhoea or constipation. You can let your manager at work or lecturers know about problems and they are obliged to accommodate them, such as allowing you to take extra time for breaks to go to the toilet, or any other reasonable adjustments you may need.

6. Toilets 

If you can’t wait when you’re out and about, there are various apps that can show where public toilets are. You also do not have to have a visible disability to use a disabled toilet: they are there for you, too. Additionally, radar keys can also be purchased to unlock certain disabled toilets.

Dealing with IBS as a university student

IBS is something I’ve personally struggled with for about ten years, although I was only officially diagnosed about three years ago. It makes me panic about toilet locations; my stomach makes some very strange sounds, I always carry some anti-diarrhoea tablets in my bag and a packet of heartburn tablets, and I’ve had to cancel plans on numerous occasions due to stomach pain. I’m only just getting to grips with what I should and shouldn’t eat, and it is particularly difficult to deal with on a night out with friends.

Another student, who would like to remain anonymous, told us about his experience with IBS: 

"Nights out can be quite hard and I've missed loads of social gatherings because of it. I have to avoid certain types of alcohol as well because they make me feel ill. Sometimes I just have to accept that I can't eat bread every day even though I want to, and I have to cancel plans. I can't really do much about it, but drinking water every day and watching how much fibre I am having helps a bit - but it can be so embarrassing. Probably the most difficult thing about it is knowing that it won't ever go away, so I just have to get better at dealing with the symptoms". 

No symptom of irritable bowel syndrome is easy to deal with, but they can all be managed and hopefully by erasing some of the taboo around poo, we’ll be able to support each other a bit more.

If you are worried or experiencing symptoms of IBS, visit your local GP or Health Service.

You can find more information about IBS here.

Lead Image Credit: derneuemann on Pixabay .

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