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Friday, 9 October, 1998, 04:05 GMT 05:05 UK
Bowel disorder breakthrough
Bowel scan
The research could pave the way for new forms of treatment
Doctors have taken a big step forward in their understanding of what causes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Research in Cambridge has revealed that abnormal gas production in the gut may be behind as many as half of all cases.

The study, which looked closely at six women sufferers, opens the way for a simple diagnostic test and possible new forms of treatment.

IBS, which affects a quarter of the population at some time in their lives, is regarded as a collection of disorders that give patients stomach pain and diarrhoea or constipation.

It is the second highest cause of absenteeism from work in the UK after back pain.

Restricted diets

Dr John Hunter and colleagues suspected IBS had something to do with the gas produced by bacteria in the gut.

They looked at 12 women in total - six sufferers and six people without the syndrome to check their work.

The women were fed special diets. One was a standard diet with normal western foods. The other was a diet often prescribed to IBS patients, which sometimes helps reduce their symptoms.

Coffee drinkers
Caffeine drinks can upset some people
It excludes beef, dairy products, all cereals except rice, and restricts the consumption of foods with yeast, citrus fruits, caffeinated drinks, and tap water.

The women also spent 24 hours under a plastic canopy to allow the investigating team to sample the gases they produced, such as hydrogen and methane.

Breath samples, which can be used to monitor a person's gas production, were also taken every 30 minutes during waking hours. Faeces were also collected and analysed.

Gas production

Both groups of women produced about the same amount of gas, but the IBS women produced more hydrogen and produced gas more rapidly. This indicated the problem with the fermentation process going on inside their systems.

"In four of the six [IBS] patients, symptoms occurred when gas excretion was rapid," the investigators write in The Lancet medical journal.

When these patients were put on the restricted diet, the rate at which they produced gas "fell dramatically" and their symptoms improved.

The team from Addenbrooke's Hospital and the Dunn Clinical Nutrition Unit think further research should tell which bacteria are responsible for the abnormal gas production.

This should lead to a straightforward diagnostic test and a method for putting 'good' bacteria into a person's bowel to restore normal fermentation.

New yoghurts

Dr Turner said: "We hope to improve the gut flora, either by giving a mixture of healthy bacteria or by giving chemicals called pre-biotics which encourage the growth of organisms which we believe to be important.

"It might be in a pill or it might be in a functional food like a yoghurt.

"This would be much better than conventional diet treatments because the majority of our patients like cereals, dairy products and yeasts - which are staples.

"And if you can't have yeasts, you can't have bread, you can't have wine, and it's a pain in the neck."

Dr Turner said the new treatments could benefit about half of IBS patients.

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