If you are one of the millions of people living with irritable bowel syndrome – commonly known as IBS – and feeling immensely frustrated with it, Dr Dawn Harper’s TV special this week might be essential viewing.
The Embarrassing Bodies telly medic has made two documentaries for Channel 5, with How To Stop Your IBS airing tomorrow (Thursday) and then How To Stop Your Migraines next week.
In tomorrow’s doc, Dr Harper meets with a range of people living with IBS, which causes a host of digestive symptoms such as diarrhoea and/or constipation, bloating, gas and abdominal discomfort and pain. She also delves into the emotional and social impact, as well as treatments, lifestyle advice and self-care and the scientific research going on behind the scenes.
The frustration is real
Harper says themes that come up in the documentary can apply to many different conditions – she’d love to explore more of them – and frustration is a big part of it. “We’ve picked conditions like IBS that wouldn’t kill you, but they can have a huge impact,” explains Harper, 58, who still works as a GP alongside TV work. “And because we don’t necessarily have a test to diagnose them, sometimes people feel a bit fobbed off, and with that comes frustration. Plus because it doesn’t kill you, sometimes they can be taken less seriously, certainly by people around you, and sadly maybe even by us in the medical profession.”
Currently, IBS is generally diagnosed after your GP has talked with you about your symptoms , taken your history and ruled out other underlying diseases via blood tests and, if necessary, scans and further investigations. Symptoms can be similar to those associated with more ‘medically serious’ diseases, like inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s or even bowel cancer, which have clearer diagnostic pathways and where treatments are vital for preventing serious complications. IBS is still a real condition though and getting appropriate support and information is important.
Busting misconceptionsIBS can vary massively too from person to person – something Harper is keen to get across. “And it’s very common,” adds the GP, “which means on the plus side, people know what it is, but potentially on the negative side, if you know someone with mild IBS, you might think, ‘Oh well, my sister’s got that and she doesn’t not turn up for work’, or whatever it is.
“In the documentary, I meet people whose lives have been decimated by these conditions, utterly decimated,” says Harper. “We want to highlight what these conditions are like, and how severe they can be.”
Treatment isn’t one-size-fits-all eitherTreating and managing it can be very individual too. This isn’t just a case of what medications you may take, but a person’s whole lifestyle and individual triggers (certain foods might cause a flare-up for one person for example, but not the next). “If you’ve got a wound infection, there is pretty much a one-size-fits-all solution. But these conditions are very complex, conditions that even now in 2021 we don’t fully understand,” explains Harper.
“I could see 20 patients consecutively with IBS and have 20 very different consultations with very different outcomes. Because the way the disease manifests will be very individual, your expectations and what you can and can’t tolerate will be very individual.
“For example, if you’re someone with IBS diarrhoea urgency and you work from home, then that symptom will be less impactful than if you have a long commute. So really what we need to do with these conditions is be really holistic, so we can really talk to the individual about their lifestyle, what they want, what they can and can’t tolerate.”
That said, Harper is clear nobody should just be “putting up with it”. So even if it’s years since you first went to your GP and felt like you got nowhere, go back and have a good chat. There may not be a magic pill (yet!) but this is a reality for many diseases and there are certainly lots of things that can help, including a referral to a dietitian who can provide safe guidance on things like a low FODMAP diet.
There is hope
It’s certainly not all doom and gloom. Harper also takes a deep dive into the importance of managing IBS beyond the medical setting. While it can be incredibly distressing when doctors can’t provide an ideal solution, stress is a big factor in IBS and taking steps yourself – whether it’s prioritising relaxation, exercise and tweaking your routine – can be incredibly beneficial both in terms of reducing symptoms and supporting yourself emotionally and feeling more empowered.
Harper also meets with researchers “doing very exciting work” to better understand IBS and ways of managing it. “It’s really interesting but also gives people a real sense of hope, that these conditions are being taken seriously, and there is some really exciting work going on which will hopefully change the lives of IBS sufferers going forward.”
How To Stop Your IBS With Dr Dawn Harper airs on Thursday September 16 at 7pm, on Channel 5.