5 common conditions behind bowel and tummy troubles
I've never met a small child who doesn't think bowels are hilarious - burps and 'bottom burps' are the stuff of childhood humour all over the world. But sadly, suffering tummy trouble is no laughing matter in real life.
Most tummy complaints result in wind, among other symptoms, but it can be an embarrassing problem all on its own.
There are three main sources of wind - 'friendly' bacteria live in all our guts, helping us digest food, and these produce carbon dioxide and methane gases; chemical reactions in the digestive system produce carbon dioxide; and we all swallow air when we swallow food or drink.
Excess wind can be down to the food you eat. For instance, fizzy drinks can make you burp, and so can mints, onions and tomatoes, which relax the valve at the stomach entrance, allowing air back up. Beans, peas, cauliflower, broccoli, root vegetables, prunes, raisins and apples contain lots of carbohydrate that's not absorbed in the gut, so bacteria can ferment it, producing wind down below. Constipation, chewing gum and wearing tight clothes all make you more prone to wind at one end or the other. Sometimes, it's a sign of an underlying gut condition - read on to find out more.
Gallstones form in your gallbladder, tucked under your liver in the top right corner of your tummy. Two thirds of people who have them don't get symptoms, but you may get pain in this area, especially after eating fatty foods. If a stone gets stuck on its way out of the gall bladder, it can cause severe colicky pain, fever, vomiting and, even occasionally, jaundice. Gall bladder removal is usually straightforward (using telescopic surgery) and should solve the problem.
This condition is all about having little pouches of the large bowel, like tiny balloons, which pop outwards through the wall of the bowel because of raised pressure inside the bowel, caused mainly by constipation. These 'diverticulae' very common - half of Britons have them by the age of 50 - and three in four people who have them don't get any symptoms at all. In some people they cause intermittent bloating and colicky tummy pain. If digested food gets stuck in these pouches, bacteria can feed on them and multiply, causing inflammation and infection. This results in constant tummy pain (usually the lower left side), feeling feverish and generally unwell, feeling or being sick, constipation or diarrhoea and sometimes blood in your poo. A high-fibre diet cuts the risk of complications and antibiotics usually settle a severe bout.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
The bloating, tummy pain (often eased by opening your bowels), wind and change in bowel habit that make up IBS, affect up to one in five of us at some point. You may be constipated, have diarrhoea or get a mixture of the two. Symptoms mostly start in your twenties and are often made worse by stress. Although there's no single problem with your guts, the different bits don't work smoothly together. Your doctor will want to exclude other conditions before diagnosing you with IBS.
Some foods make IBS worse, so keep a food and symptom diary to highlight possible culprits. Keeping fluid intake up (but limiting caffeinated or fizzy drinks and alcohol), eating regular meals, exercising regularly and trying to manage stress levels can all help.
Beware the bloat
While less worrying causes are much more likely, persistent bloating, tummy pain and feeling full quickly on eating can be a warning sign of ovarian cancer. Simple tests can rule this out, so do see your doctor if you get these symptoms for the first time.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
There are two main kinds of IBD - Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis (UC). Both cause inflammation of the intestine, but UC only affects the colon, or large intestine. Crohn's disease is more likely than UC to cause tummy pain, but both can give rise to recurrent diarrhoea, often with blood, feeling tired and generally unwell, fevers and weight loss.
Although neither can be cured, medications which reduce inflammation (either steroids or medicines acting on the body's immune system) can often control symptoms. Surgery to remove or repair damaged bowel may be needed.
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.