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What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Classical irritable bowel syndrome is a distressing problem that is characterised by abdominal bloating, alternating diarrhoea and constipation and colicky abdominal pain. It tends to come in attacks that can be linked with foodstuffs and stress. It can also run in families. At its worst it may be associated with bleeding from the bowel. This pattern of symptoms may also signal a bowel cancer and it is imperative that this problem is excluded before you take up any advice that you might find in this e-advice.

Indicators in favour of the problem being irritable bowel syndrome would be a long history of the problem with clear worsening at times of stress or a relationship to certain foods. These would have to be separated by times of normal bowel activity and with no real change in weight nor bleeding from the bowel.

Indicators in favour of a cancer would be a short history of the problem, with a relentless presence of the symptoms, bleeding from the bowel and weight loss.

The intestine or bowel is a long open tube extending from mouth to anus. The main problem associated with irritable bowel syndrome is the disorderly contraction of the muscles that line the wall of the small intestine. This is the first part of the bowel and is principally involved with the absorption of foodstuffs. It is lined with specialised linings that do this. From a physiological viewpoint the bowel is in contact with the open air and technically part of the "outside". Because of this the wall of the bowel is well supplied with systems that keep dangerous substances from getting into what it regards as the inside of the body where they can cause damage. The bowel wall contains muscles that act either along the wall or around it like a ring.

Later on you will see that the wall becomes leaky and allows toxins to pass through it. These toxins affect both the specialised linings and also the intricate network of nerves that control the movements of the muscles. The food is let out of the stomach in liquid form in individual waves caused by the muscles tightening in the stomach wall whilst the outlet of the stomach relaxes. This wave is then helped along the bowel by relaxation of the ring of muscle in front of it and the tightening of the ring of muscle behind it.

This can be quite a complex business, as the bowel needs to "know" where each packet of food is at any one time. The toxins interfere with the function of the nerves. These then are unable to send the correct messages to the muscles so that they do not contract in this orderly way. The muscles contract both in front of and during the passage of the packet of food. This can cause a slowdown or even a reversal in that movement and allow the bowel bacteria longer to digest the food package and so produce more gas than normal, hence the distressing distension that can make the abdomen very swollen. The muscles may go into spasm during this disorderly process causing colicky pains. Then it is quite possible that the muscles go into a frantic overdrive and this could result in the diarrhoea that may be such a feature of irritable bowel syndrome. The nervous difficulty could well be problem in sensing the positions of the various food packets or in the ability to respond to that knowledge. It could, of course, be a mixture of both. Nevertheless the principal problem lies in the way that the absorbed toxins affect the controlling nerves in the bowel wall.

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