As many as one in five adults in this country, most of them women, suffers from a condition that is not just painful but socially debilitating.
Many sufferers of IBS are often too embarrassed to socialise
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the kind of non-specific, non-fatal condition that busy GPs can easily dismiss but, with symptoms ranging from stomach cramping to diarrhoea or constipation, bloating, excessive wind and incontinence if there is no lavatory nearby, it can be a colossal problem.
"It is excruciatingly embarrassing," says Lyn Brooks, a lawyer in her thirties who has had IBS for seven years. "At a dinner party recently I was trying so desperately hard to hold in my wind that I was soon doubled up on the floor. People thought I was drunk."
Some sufferers, not surprisingly, become afraid to leave home, losing careers, friends or even lovers. The internet is alive with IBS support groups where people can unburden themselves anonymously. One woman recounts crouching in a school playing field at night, terrified she would be caught on CCTV; another recalls how she fainted from stomach cramps, bringing the New York traffic to a halt.
If you have these symptoms, it is important to get a diagnosis from your GP as they may signal other illnesses such as Crohn’s disease. Although there is no magic cure for IBS, and its causes are not fully understood, a GP may be able to prescribe medications such as anti-spasmodics. Most experts agree, however, that self-help is the best approach.
Probiotics, the good bacteria that help the gut to function healthily and are now added to many foods, may help. According to the Gut Trust, an IBS charity, not all probiotic products are equal, so it is important to choose one that contains enough active ingredients to make a difference. There is less scientific evidence that pre-biotics, which feed the good bacteria in the gut and are also added to many foods, make a difference to IBS.
Fizzy drinks, acidic or spicy foods and caffeine can all trigger the condition, so it may help to identify the culprit (keep a food diary) then cut it out. Skipping meals or wolfing your food on the hop - something most busy, stressed or weight-conscious women do regularly - can exacerbate the dishwasher tummy feeling, which is why doctors advise eating regular meals and taking the time to sit down and actually chew your food. Drinking two litres of water a day can also help, by moving the food steadily through the gut.
Another major IBS trigger is stress. "When I left my consulting job to study cranial osteopathy," says Martha Allen, 40, "the symptoms virtually vanished." The mind-body link is hard to prove in clinical trials but it makes intuitive sense: think of nervous butterflies in your stomach or a child who develops a tummy ache when anxious.
One IBS sufferer in an online support group tells how she was about to stay the night with her new boyfriend for the first time when she was stricken with stomach cramps and had to dash home, leaving him flummoxed.
According to the Gut Trust, people with IBS often swear that de-stressing therapies such as massage, aromatherapy, acupuncture or reflexology helped. At the very least, such therapies may provide the understanding and support that most IBS sufferers badly need.
Eat probiotics Yakult drinks or Multibionta supplements contain the right active ingredients.
Skip the All-Bran Limiting insoluble fibre, for instance, in bran cereals or high-fibre breads, may help.
Massage Rub almond or grapeseed oil into your abdomen in slow, circular, clockwise movements. For constipation add one or two drops of marjoram, rosemary or fennel essential oils. For diarrhoea try camomile, lavender or neroli.
Get your oats For wind and bloating, eat porridge and linseeds (up to one tablespoon per day) for breakfast.Daily Telegraph