What is IBD? Symptoms, causes & prevention

Irritable bowel disease (IBD) cases are rising in the UK and show no sign of slowing. The symptoms can be debilitating and are often similar to other, more serious illnesses. Worryingly, many IBD patients have admitted to delaying an official diagnosis, which only increases the likelihood of needing more aggressive medical treatment in the long term.  The good news is that once diagnosed, you can manage the symptoms of IBD with lifestyle changes and medicines. This guide explores the various symptoms and signs of an irritable bowel, the leading causes, and how to calm a flare-up.

What is IBD?

Irritable bowel disease (IBD) is a term used to describe a range of digestive tract inflammation diseases which affect the large and small intestines, the stomach, and the oesophagus.

Although it may sound similar to pain from IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), IBD is an entirely different set of diseases. IDB is an inflammatory condition, and IBS is not. People who have inflammatory bowel disease can also suffer from IBS. In fact, they’re more susceptible to it.

The most common types of IBD are:

  1. Crohn’s disease
  2. Ulcerative colitis (also called UC or colitis)

Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Although it can affect the entire tract (from mouth to anus), Crohn’s disease is most common in the small intestine and the colon. It’s a lifelong condition that can occur in people of all ages, but it’s most common in people aged 20-30. Unlike other types of IBD, Crohn’s disease can occur in patches rather than the entire lining.

There are 5 types of Crohn’s disease:

  • Crohn’s colitis (only affects colon)
  • Gastroduodenal Crohn’s disease (affects stomach)
  • Jejunoileitis (patchy inflammation in the small intestine)
  • Ileitis (affects lower intestine)
  • Ileocolitis (both large and small intestines)

Ulcerative colitis is a continuous inflammation of the large intestine and, in some cases, the rectum. Colitis sufferers experience painful ulcers in the lining of the colon. These occur when the cells on the surface of the bowel lining die. Although colitis can affect anyone, there’s a slight increase in cases for men aged 50 and over.

There are 3 types of ulcerative colitis:

  • Pancolitis (affects the entire colon)
  • Left-sided colitis (affects the rectum and left side of the colon)
  • Proctitis (affects the rectum)

What are the most common IBD symptoms?

The symptoms of an IBS attack or IBD flare-up can vary depending on the condition you have. A Crohn’s flare-up may differ slightly from colitis due to the different areas they commonly inflict. The symptoms could also differ between men and women.

What’s more, the symptoms of an IBD or IBS flare-up can overlap with more severe illnesses, such as bowel cancer and ovarian cancer, so it’s essential you take note of them and get a fast diagnosis.

Crohn’s disease symptoms

Crohn’s disease symptoms can flare up every so often and may even be constant. Because Crohn’s disease can occur in any area of the digestive tract, the symptoms will vary depending on the specific type you’ve got.

The most common symptoms include:

  • Tiredness
  • Bowel spasms
  • Stomach cramps
  • Bloody stools
  • Diarrhoea
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite

Ulcerative colitis symptoms

People who have ulcerative colitis will usually experience periods of remission, in which they either have no symptoms or very mild symptoms. This is followed by a flare-up which can be severe for anyone with large areas of inflammation.

During an ulcerative colitis flare-up, you may experience symptoms in other areas of your body, as well as the digestive system.

  • Stomach pain
  • Tiredness
  • Frequent need to empty your bowels
  • Diarrhoea
  • Eye irritation
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Painful joints and skin

These conditions may also manifest differently depending on your gender. Hormones released during the menstrual cycle can impact IBD and IBS symptoms in women.

Female IBD sufferers are prone to more unique symptoms like:

  • Fertility issues (especially during a flare-up)
  • Iron deficiency
  • More intense menstrual symptoms like headaches and intense abdominal pains.

IBD and IBS symptoms in men might also be specific to male hormones and anatomy. Several studies have shown that the sexual function is commonly affected, with symptoms like:

  • Decreased sex drive
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Incontinence

What causes IBD?

It’s difficult to pin down what causes inflammatory bowel disease, but experts believe several risk factors can increase the likelihood of getting it. Much like IBS causes, IBD can be traced to lifestyle and diet choices in most cases.

Inflammatory bowel disease causes might include:

  • Immune system: an overactive immune system can cause the body to attack its own cells.
  • Smoking: smoking is one of the leading IBD causes, especially for Crohn’s disease. It’s been linked to increased symptom pain and a higher risk of complications.
  • Lifestyle: people with an inactive lifestyle or long hours at a desk job may be at high risk of developing IBD. There’s also some evidence to suggest that a diet rich in processed foods could contribute to IBD susceptibility.
  • Family history: there’s a strong genetic link with IBD. Some scientists believe that you’re at higher risk of developing the condition if a member of your direct family suffers from it.

How to prevent and treat an IBD flare up

Unfortunately, there’s no known cure for IBD, and many of the treatments on offer are temporary. Managing IBD is the best way to reduce the number of flare-ups and limit discomfort.

The most simple inflammatory bowel disease prevention method is to maintain a healthy diet. Although no specific method has been proven to help, some people find low FODMAP diets helpful in preventing an IBD flare-up. Taking probiotics and prebiotics may also help, but it’s important to get an official diagnosis or speak to a medical professional before changing your eating habits.

Some simple preventative guidelines include:

  • Eating smaller meals
  • Chewing slowly with a closed mouth
  • Avoid spicy, fatty or sugary foods
  • Regulating your bowel movements
  • Avoid eating late at night

It’s recommended that you keep a food diary to see whether specific foods trigger your flare-ups. Fibre, gluten, and dairy can affect IBD and should be monitored closely.

While there’s currently no known cure, the best treatment for IBD is to learn how to ease symptoms through medicines, diet and lifestyle.

The following prescribed medications can help ease the symptoms of Colitis and Crohn’s:

  • Biosimilar medicine: a protein-based biological medicine that relieves symptoms
  • Steroids: helps reduce immune system activity
  • Masalaznes: reduces inflammation
  • Antibiotics: kills bacteria in the small intestine

Although there are medicines available, people with severe colitis symptoms often find that medication isn’t effective. People with Crohn’s can find temporary relief by opting for surgery to remove sections of damaged bowel, but symptoms will return eventually.

So, how do you calm an IBS flare-up? There are some basic ways to ease the discomfort.

Diarrhoea

  • Cut down your fibre intake
  • Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration

Constipation

  • Drink plenty of water
  • Increase your fibre intake
  • Regulate your bowel movements

Nausea

  • Ginger or peppermint tea
  • Sucking a boiled sweet
  • Eating dry foods like crackers

What foods trigger IBS attacks?

Both IBS and IBD require dietary changes to help ease symptoms, but there isn’t enough evidence to definitively say which foods can trigger attacks. It differs from person to person.

Some potential trigger foods include:

  • Dairy
  • Sugar-free sweeteners
  • Caffeinated drinks
  • Lean protein
  • Low-fibre fruits
  • Refined grains

Can you suddenly develop IBS?

Irritable bowel conditions like IBS and IBD can both develop suddenly. There’s no definitive known cause for these conditions, but many people experience IBS after periods of intense stress, abdominal operations, severe infections or changes in hormones or gut microbes. IBD may be genetic, the result of an overactive immune system, or could be due to lifestyle.

How do I know if it’s IBS?

It’s crucial to distinguish IBS from IBD. Irritable bowel syndrome has similar symptoms (bloating, diarrhoea and constipation) to Crohn’s and colitis, but it isn’t an inflammatory reaction and doesn’t result in blood loss.

The best way to determine whether you have IBS or IBD is to get a test. If your intestines are inflamed, they’ll secrete a substance called ‘calprotectin’ which can be detected with a simple stool sample. Find out more here.

How long do IBS attacks last?

An IBS flare-up can start immediately after eating and last for up to four days. Irritable bowel diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis are more unpredictable — flare-ups may last for weeks.

Does IBS go away?

Unfortunately, irritable bowel conditions do not currently have a permanent cure. Although you can’t get rid of IBS or IBD permanently, there are things you can do to improve your chances of a longer remission period or milder symptoms.

People with IBS should try to eliminate stress and avoid trigger foods like lean protein, caffeine and dairy. People with IBD can keep a food diary to identify trigger foods and try to get plenty of exercise and nutrition.

How can I get tested for IBD?

IBS and IBD share many of the same symptoms, and they share symptoms with more serious digestive illnesses. If you suspect you might be suffering from IBS, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s, it’s important to get tested as soon as possible.

You can book a calprotectin check with Bluecrest Wellness and do it from the comfort and convenience of your own home. It’s a straightforward stool sample test without the need for invasive procedures. Check your digestive health with one of our nutrition plans or our Digestion and Nutrition Essentials package.