What is IBS and how do you know if you have it?

Woman holding two glasses of milk looking concerned
Mind over matter: did you know stress can also trigger IBS Credit: Getty

Check out if you have the symptoms – and if the solution lies in the milk that you drink.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) seems to be one of the most common – albeit embarrassing – complaints of our time. A chronic pain condition that usually develops between the ages of 20 and 30, IBS affects almost twice as many women as men, with researchers from the University of Nottingham reporting in 2014 that it affects 11 per cent of the population globally.

Symptoms range from bouts of stomach cramps, bloating and trapped wind to diarrhoea and/or constipation, with the severity varying between individuals. The duration of bouts is equally unpredictable, ranging from a few days to months, especially in times of stress.

Clinical scientist Dr Anthony Hobson, an independent specialist in gastro-intestinal physiology, explains that for many people with IBS, simple dietary interventions are a good place to start.

Many people notice that their symptoms get worse when they have cow’s milk.

IBS usually develops between the ages of 20 and 30 and affects almost twice as many women as men

“A lot of people assume their unpleasant symptoms are due to their inability to digest the lactose. But now we know the A1 protein can cause some of the bloating and cramping; the [symptoms] are nothing to do with lactose, which most of us can digest normally,” he says.

“So it makes sense for anyone who thinks they may be lactose-intolerant to try switching from regular cow’s milk to a2 Milk before going to the GP or a consultant and possibly having invasive testing like a colonoscopy.”

Understand you body: symptoms of IBS will be different for everyone Credit: Getty

Dr Hobson, who runs the independent Functional Gut Clinic, was so interested in the potential of a2 Milk – and having seen several patients and colleagues try a2 Milk successfully – he decided to put it to the test. Twelve people who had IBS symptoms and believed they suffered lactose intolerance were recruited and given regular or a2 Milk. “Afterwards tests revealed only three had genuine lactose intolerance, and those drinking a2 Milk were mostly free from symptoms.”

He adds: “It’s concerning that many people are avoiding foods like dairy which are a good source of vitamins and minerals, and potentially compromising their immune systems. I believe 50 to 70 per cent of those with dairy-related IBS could get their symptoms to a level which is tolerable without needing tests, just by changing to a2 Milk.

“I was really impressed by the science behind a2. It’s a fascinating area and has positive implications for other food intolerances.”

It’s concerning that many people are avoiding foods like dairy which are a good source of vitamins and minerals

With IBS it’s important to take a holistic approach to tackling – and avoiding – successive bouts, as clinical dietitian Rick Miller explains. “There can be all kinds of dietary triggers as well as psychological ones such as stress. In people living with IBS, the nervous system around the gut is more sensitive. This means they experience gastric pain from digesting food.”

If you think you might be living with IBS, it is important to see a doctor to get other potentially serious conditions ruled out. According to the charity and support group The IBS Network, bowel diseases often have similar pathologies to IBS, but certain symptoms are “red flags” and need to be investigated.

However, if your symptoms are concentrated solely on the bowel, it’s worth trying to find out what your triggers are and taking account of them. Miller suggests you check your diet. “Milk is often reported as a trigger food for IBS, with symptoms blamed on intolerance to lactose, the sugar in milk. While this is true for up to 5 per cent of the UK population, many others may be intolerant to a milk protein called A1 beta-casein – often called the A1 protein and found in regular cow’s milk.”

“There are two main types of beta-casein: A1 and A2,” he explains, “and recent research has demonstrated that individuals who choose cow’s milk which only contains A2 protein have reported no [IBS-type] symptoms [such as bloating].  It’s worth trying for two weeks as it could be a simple answer to a huge problem.”

Not all milk is the same

a2 Milk is real cow’s milk that’s naturally easy to digest.

Switching to a2 Milk has helped people who have previously had difficulty with traditional cow’s milk.

Find out more about how a2 Milk can help with the symptoms of IBS and other adverse reactions to traditional cow’s milk.

a2 Milk is not suitable for cows’ milk protein allergy.