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What to do when your bowel gets irritable

Wednesday, June 5, 1996

WE dedicate this edition to a noble cause: a literal quest for intestinal fortitude. But before setting out, let's review for the benefit of any newcomers why Body Works Interactive exists and how it operates.

BWI is the Middle Kingdom's health and fitness bulletin board, designed to link readers in need of information with those of you who may possess it. To ask a question or submit an answer, see the instructions at the bottom of the page. However, when doing the latter, please list any credentials you may have or sources you have tapped.

Finally, always consult a practitioner before taking any medical action. The comments or advice found here relate to the case at hand, and of course no two cases are alike.

The query: What, asked V. K. Rao of Kingston, do BWI's experts know about "an insidious ailment" called irritable bowel syndrome? "It is a disease that blights one's life and the lives of those around one."

The response: This may come as a revelation, writes Janet L. Watson of Mississauga, but irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) "is actually a fairly common disorder. Researchers estimate that up to 20 per cent of the North American adult population suffers from an irritable bowel from time to time."

Ms. Watson, a director of sales and marketing for Block Drug of Canada, says the irritation is the result of improper functioning of the intestinal tract. The most common symptoms are abdominal pain such as spasms or cramps, along with bloating, gas pain, flatulence, and either diarrhea or constipation.

"A person suffering from an irritable bowel may experience one or a combination of these symptoms. The type of discomfort and level of pain seem to vary from sufferer to sufferer."

For a serious examination of this affliction, one of a family known as "functional gastrointestinal disorders," the Internet is of great assistance.

For example, one BWI correspondent who asks to remain nameless ("I don't want the world to know that I might be suffering from IBS, when I am not even sure myself") suggests that anyone curious about what he calls "irrational" bowel syndrome try the discussion group alt.support.crohns-colitis (Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, by the way, are forms of the more serious inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD).

The World Wide Web, meanwhile, has a large U.S. site dedicated to bowel ailments -- http://qurlyjoe/bu.edu/cducibs/ibsfaq.html -- but one much closer to home also is well worth a visit. Found at http://www.ibsgroup.org/ it features a nifty library of "hot links" to other sources of information as well as a list of products on the market that combat one or another of the many IBS symptoms.

The site is maintained by the IBS Self Help Group, which you can join online or by writing to 3324 Yonge St., P.O. Box 94074, Toronto, M4N 3R1.

IN his original query, Mr. Rao was very keen to pin down the cause of IBS, which poses a bit of a problem.

The resource documents for alt.support.crohns-colitis include highly detailed answers to a list of Frequently Asked Questions. At almost 3,000 words, the FAQ is far too long for BWI to accommodate (you can find it by visiting either of the Web sites), but this is all it has to say about what prompts the disease:

"Several theories have been proposed over the past 20 to 30 years, but the cause of IBS symptoms is not completely understood."

Ms. Watson confirms this, noting that "research has not yet been able to determine exactly why certain people suffer from an irritable bowel. The condition usually begins in young adulthood and occasionally even in adolescence.

"Many physicians believe that it is brought on by stress, diet and other lifestyle factors. Conditions, such as lactose sensitivity, overuse of laxatives and an intolerance to certain cereal proteins in wheat and rye, can trigger a flare-up.

"IBS can become the method in which the body signals that a person is experiencing a difficult time. Stress seems to aggravate the symptoms, and many patients can relate the onset of symptoms to a particularly stressful period in their lives."

On a more positive note, researchers are now almost certain that IBS is not life-threatening, and does not lead either to cancer or to the more serious inflammatory bowel diseases.

And what can be done about it? The first step, Ms. Watson writes, is to contact your doctor, who can "determine what conditions are triggering symptoms, and may suggest ways to help cope with, and treat the flare-ups."

This treatment can range from a change of diet and lifestyle to trying something from the array of medications on the market. The second of those mentioned on the self-help group's Web site (okay, the list is in alphabetical order) is Colpermin, a non-prescription medication sold by Block.

According to Ms. Watson, it consists of concentrated peppermint oil in an enteric-coated capsule and is intended "to relieve the abdominal pain (such as spasms and cramps) and bloating" associated with IBS.

The compound contains no lactose, sucrose, alcohol or gluten. The enteric coating keeps capsules from dissolving in the stomach, allowing them to reach the intestinal tract, the site of the pain.

"However," she cautions, "the first step in treating IBS should always be to consult a doctor."

Down for the count

We have just enough room left to thank all those kind enough to point out the typographical error in last week's explanation of how to take your own pulse. As you suspected, counting for 13 seconds and then multiplying by four doesn't quite give you a minute's worth of beats.

As for fresh queries, next time we'll be sure to reserve sufficient space, so please get them in early.

Body Works Interactive normally appears on alternate Wednesdays. You may place a question by phone (1-800-461- 3298 or 416-585-5168) but when submitting an answer, please send a fax to 1-416-585- 5085, or E-mail to [email protected] or write to us c/o The Globe and Mail, 444 Front St. W., Toronto, Ont., M5V 2S9.

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