Living with IBS

Better minds better living with Yansie Rolston Monday, May 29 2017

DISCUSSION about the bowels and toilet habits are often taboo, but living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) also referred to as Irritable Bowel Disorder (IBD) can be unpleasant and embarrassing due to the pain and possibility of incontinence.

However, for many of us it is a painful and disabling illness, and though symptoms may vary from person to person, it generally manifests itself by way of abdominal cramps, bloating, and a combination of diarrhoea and constipation. These are also often accompanied by tiredness, nausea, heartburn, backache, frequent urination, headaches, muscle pains, anxiety and depression.

Some of the worse aspects of the illness are the unpredictability of the flare-ups and the urgency required to get to a toilet. Flare-ups occur for reasons such as reactions to particular foods or medication, stressful situations, or anxiety attacks, and usually manifest as sharp abdominal pains. Some of us become so sensitive to the pain coming from the gut that it can cause us to lose consciousness, and along with the acute pain is the urgent need to use the toilet – some sufferers are not able to control their urge to urinate, while others experience sudden bouts of diarrhoea.

I happen to have a “Can’t Wait” card that I carry at all times – it is a credit card size, explaining that I have a medical condition which causes me to urgently need the toilet. That card has proven to be incredibly useful for flare-ups that have happened in public places such as banks, shops or restaurants.

If you are like me and get nervous when a plane hits an area of turbulence, having a “Can’t Wait” card will be handy because flareups do not abide to airline safety instructions nor do they understand that the seat belt light means the toilet is off limits. There are times when I have had to discretely show my card to the flight attendant, unbuckle the seat belt and make a quick sprint to the toilet.

My other backup is a RADAR key which allows me to unlock any of the 9,000 public disabled toilets across the UK, and therefore avoids the dire consequences and embarrassment of not having access to a toilet in time.

IBS is a mysterious chronic illness of the digestive system which is known to affect at least one out of five people. However, due to the complexity and the mysteriousness of the illness it can be quite difficult to diagnose, so there are many people who are not even aware that they have it.

Dr Robin Spiller, gastroenterologist specialising in IBS observed that many people do not visit their GP but instead try to cope on their own, and while self-management is adequate for some, there are many who “are restricting their social existence and not travelling and not eating out, and they probably should be seeing someone”.

Studies show that there is no single cause for the symptoms of IBS but that it is linked to gut sensitivity, problems digesting food, and psychological factors such as trauma, and stress. They also indicate that probability is increased if you have an immediate relative with the disorder.

Dr Cryan – a researcher who does significant work on the connection between the gut and the brain, and reckons that it is the root of the sayings “gut feeling” and “gut instinct”, and even people who do not have IBS sometimes find that when they get nervous or experience stressful situations they need to go to the toilet.

Dr Yansie Rolston FRSA is a UK-based disability and mental health specialist advisor. She is a social strategist and trainer who works internationally at various levels of government, business and civil society. Contact her at

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