Doctors label IBS sufferers neurotic. But nutritional medicine has known for years that bowel problems are not all in the head.If you suffer from a general range of bowel problems that don't fall under any neat category, your doctor is more than likely to pack you off to a psychiatrist. Until recently, this problem has been tagged by orthodox medicine a "psychosomatic disorder". Indeed, some medical literature is downright scornful of the syndrome, judging from an article in a recent issue of The Lancet (2 January 1992), intended as a spoof and featuring a fictitious hapless neurotic down on his luck, who is meant to typify your average irritable bowel syndrome patient.
If this problem is psychosomatic, a term used when medicine hasn't a clue about a particular condition, then a very great number of lunatics are on the loose. Nearly a quarter of all questionnaire respondents in Southampton, thought to be fairly representative of the general population, complained of symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of IBS. Nutritionist Kathryn Marsden argues what naturopaths have known for years: that IBS usually has a physiological cause.
In most cases, irritable bowel syndrome is a cop out classification for a number of irksome conditions with similar symptoms which (medically at least) seem difficult to diagnose and impossible to treat. Your IBS might just as easily be called spastic colon, mucous colitis or non inflammatory bowel disease. They all mean much the same thing. And although many nutritionally ignorant doctors are unable to agree on the cause of IBS, most naturopaths have had a handle on it for years.
A number of conditions have similar symptoms to IBS and can be mistaken for it. These include coeliac disease, diverticulitis, intestinal candidiasis, laxative abuse, lactose intolerance, infestation with intestinal parasites, such as giardiasis, amoebiasis or blastocystis hominis, fecal impaction, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, disturbed intestinal microflora, due to hormone, antibiotic or antacid usage, or even metabolic disorders such as diabetes mellitus.
The symptoms and their severity vary considerably from person to person, but can include: abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence, fatigue, mucousy stools, foul odour, bleeding, anal soreness, weight fluctuations, back pain, headache, intermittent bouts of constipation and diarrhoea, teeth grinding and jaw clenching, anxiety and depression. In some people, abdominal pain may be eased after a bowel movement, but the feeling of incomplete evacuation may remain.
True IBS is most usually caused and/or aggravated by several physiological factors. Food intolerance is high on the list (the worst offenders being wheat, sugar, yeast, milk, beef, pork, corn, coffee or orange juice), followed by neurological problems (please note, neurological, not neurotic!). Poor diet and nutritional deficiencies are also common. Hyperventilation, hypochlorhydria (low levels of stomach acid), achlorhydria (no acid at all), digestive enzyme insufficiency, antibiotic and steroid drugs, infestation with intestinal parasites and, of course, excessive stress in isolation or combination may all inflict further anguish.
While stress is often a significant factor in IBS sufferers, the problem with their inner workings is rarely only "all in the mind". Where it occurs, the most common psychological factor is that of relationship conflicts and/or an inability or reluctance to "cut the umbilical cord". Patients whose IBS has been triggered by parent problems complain of feeling "suffocated", "trapped", "possessive" or "possessed" (by another person). In such cases, psychotherapy, relaxation therapy and healing, in conjunction with nutritional treatment, can nearly always solve the problem.