The trouble with irritable bowel syndrome is that it's not really considered serious enough to warrant substantial research, yet sufferers know only too well the distress and misery of having to deal with IBS on a daily basis.

Let's first clarify what irritable bowel syndrome actually is.

IBS, sometimes referred to as spastic colon, is a disorder of the gut which leads to abdominal pain, stomach bloating, cramps and alterations in bowel movements. Some people may experience diarrhea, others constipation. It can be an extremely uncomfortable condition to live with and although it is incurable it is thankfully not life threatening.

The precise cause of irritable bowel syndrome remains uncertain although it is generally considered to be a mechanical fault linked to the way the rhythm of the muscles, which line the walls of the intestine, contract and relax to allow food to move through the intestinal tract. Sufferers of IBS may have stronger and longer complaining contracts which may force food through the intestines too quickly, causing gas, bloating and diarrhea. However, in other people, the exact opposite may occur, in that the passage of food is too slow. This may cause the stools to become hard and dry which can cause constipation and excess wind.

External triggers which can aggravate irritable bowel syndrome tend to be food, stress or hormone related. Certain foods are often suspected of causing excess gas / wind including strong green vegetables, beans, peas and pulses. Carbonated (fizzy) drinks can also lead to excess bloating as can constant chewing of gum. Probiotics may be helpful to counter the effects as they are thought to increase the levels of healthy bacteria in the gut and ease the spasms. Peppermint tea or concentrated peppermint capsules can be very beneficial in soothing cramps.

Other foods which may cause symptoms are wheat and dairy products though if you find yourself reacting strongly to these types of foods, tests should be performed to rule out more serious allergies including allergy to lactose, wheat and / or celiac disease.

If stress is an issue, sufferers should consider trying to reduce stress levels with either relaxation techniques, counseling or light exercise. Cutting down on cigarettes and drinking alcohol can also relieve symptoms.

Hormonal imbalance may play a role for some sufferers of IBS although the reasons are unclear. One possibility is a rise in progesterone which can slow down gut motility. This combined with a drop in estrogen may lead to bloating and cramps at different times throughout the month.

Whatever the causes of irritable bowel syndrome, there are a variety of treatments available, some over the counter, others from a doctor. It is important for sufferers to speak to a GP in order that more serious complaints which often share similar symptoms can be deleged out.