Overactive Bowel : What are the Causes and Symptoms?

Toilet habits differ from person to person depending on the lifestyle of the person. The functions of the digestive system work in harmony with the other organs of the body, so dysfunction of one of these takes a toll on others, with one of the most common dysfunctions of the digestive system being overactive bowel. It affects men and women in equal proportions and is estimated to affect around 15 percent of the population in the UK. This condition is also known as faecal incontinence, wherein the person cannot control the passage of stool for different reasons.

What Causes an Overactive Bowel?

Studies have shown that the nerves serving the GI tract play a big role in making the bowel act the way it does. Certain stimuli trigger painful bowel contractions that cause the GI tract to expel anything out, often with urgency and without enough warning. 

Commonly known factors that cause overactive bowel syndrome include:

  • Crohn’s disease
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Lactose intolerance
  • A reaction to antibiotics
  • Intestinal bacteria

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What are the symptoms of an overactive bowel?

 

Common symptoms of an overactive bowel include:

  • Colicky pain that comes and goes especially after eating fatty or spicy foods
  • Flatulence
  • Gut spasm that accompanies high-speed peristalsis often felt on the left side of the abdomen (abdominal cramps)
  • Burping
  • Bloated feeling
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Faecal incontinence (diarrhoea or constipation)
  • Acid reflux (regurgitation)

Any of the above-mentioned diseases cause the aforementioned symptoms, so exact diagnosis may be difficult to establish. It is important to get a professional advice from a reliable health care provider (GP or a gastroenterologist) and careful evaluation of the symptoms to determine the cause before recommending appropriate treatment. 

Can Overactive Bowel Syndrome be Treated?

Despite the numerous studies conducted in the past, there is no known cure for an overactive bowel. It is not advisable to self-medicate, although over-the-counter drugs are available in pharmacies that you can purchase with or without a doctor’s prescription.

It is useful to try some of following treatment methods to reduce the symptoms of OAB:

1. Exercise regularly

Although an excessive strenuous activity may cause diarrhoea, moderate physical activity regulates normal bowel habits and reduces overactive bowel symptoms. Consider going running frequently or doing exercise such as swimming or gentle sport.

2. Manage stress levels

As symptoms of an overactive bowel can be worsened through stress and anxiety, making changes in your life to reduce emotional upset may help. Self-hypnosis and other psychological therapy may help relieve stress and treat anxiety and depression caused by having an overactive bowel.

3. Consider dietary changes

National guidelines for nutrition and overactive bowel syndrome include the following tips:

  • Drink at least eight cups of fluid per day, especially water or other non-caffeinated drinks. This helps to keep the stools (faeces) soft and easy to pass along the gut.
  • Consider limiting intake of high-fibre food. Foods in this category include beans, brown or wholegrain rice and bran based cereal.
  • Limit fresh fruit to three portions (of 80 g each) per day.
  • Avoid sorbitol, an artificial sweetener found in sugar-free sweets (including chewing gum) and in drinks, and in some diabetic and slimming products.

As a last resort, you can purchase over-the-counter drugs with or without a doctor’s prescription such as:

  • Antacids to relieve acid reflux
  • Anti-spasmodic drugs to relax the bowel contractions and relieve pain
  • Anti-depressants to relax the body and mind and relieve stress (It is advisable to use anti-depressants with caution since these drugs are habit-forming and may cause dependence)
  • Laxatives to help with constipation (Laxatives and anti-motility drugs do have adverse side effects and are not advisable for long-term therapy)
  • Anti-motility drugs (Loperamides) for diarrhoea
  • Probiotic agents that replace the good bacteria in the gut killed by some antibiotics

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One Comment

  1. Wendy-Lee Walker-Blake Reply

    I have suffered from over active bowels for more than 5 years, I have been on fodmap diets and I am lactose intolerant. When I do have a semi hard bowel movement it is ribbon like, but that doesn’t happen that often. I have also been diagnosed with over active bladder, sleep apnea, ibs, degenerative disc in my neck and fibromyalgia. I have also been diagnosed with a wheat/gluten intolerance, but I also suffer reactions to both cornflakes and fibre gel doesn’t seem to help. My stools are orange in colour and I am thinking it may be due to lack of acid in my tummy.

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