The focus of this article is on a condition known as irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, and lots of interesting findings have been presented at the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) annual meetings on this condition.

IBS is a very frustrating condition that is said to affect up to 20% of North Americans, and it is much more prevalent in women.

Although we don't know the exact cause, we do know that in IBS, the bowel seems to react with undue sensitivity to normal stimuli leading to symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas (which my son, with his usual subtlety, pronounces as "gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas"), and abdominal pain.

Needless to say, when symptoms are severe or frequent, as a study at the ACG meeting showed, compared to people who don't have IBS, IBS sufferers visit doctors much more often, use way more medications, and also have a significantly poorer self-rated quality of life in that they tend to miss school and work more often, and tend to feel more poorly.

That's the depressing news. For the good news, an ACG meeting study found that doing more exercise not only doesn't lead to more severe IBS, but that in fact being active helps IBS sufferers deal with their condition better. That is, participating in sports activities helps IBS patients feel better.

And sticking with the bowel, colon cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in North America, even though it can be readily diagnosed at a precancerous stage, when we can prevent it from going on to become a frank malignancy.

That's why it's long been recommended that men start regular colon cancer screening at age 50 (younger than that if there's a strong family history of the condition, or a known genetic predisposition, or the presence of some other high-risk condition such as ulcerative colitis).

For women, however, the recommendations have not been as clear because some people have argued that women, who are protected from a variety of diseases up to midlife by estrogen, develop cancer of the colon at a later age than men do, meaning that women might be able to put off starting to get screened for colon cancer to a later time in life than men, and believe me, folks, everyone wants to - and does - put off colon cancer screening as long as they can.

Well, guess what, ladies. No such luck, I'm afraid (as a man who has had to have several colonoscopies in my time, I can admit that, yes, those are crocodile tears you see falling from my eyes). You see, a study at the ACG meeting presented good evidence that women should start being screened for colon cancer at the age of 50, just like guys.

Finally, you know how on so many occasions, usually just when there's been a lull in the conversation or when you've been trying to act really cool, your stomach has suddenly started rumbling and sounding like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius? And you were so embarrassed that you didn't know what to say? In fact, no one knew what to say, so everyone pretended they didn't hear it. Well, it's happened to me, anyway.

But hey! there's apparently something many of you can do to minimize the chance that a stomach noise eruption will disrupt your next meeting or presentation.

According to researchers from the University of Kansas (where, because of all those cows, they presumably know a lot about gas), nearly half the people they tested suffer from fructose malabsorption, that is, those people are unable to completely digest the main sugar found in fruit. So if they ingest anything with fructose in it, they get gas, not to mention diarrhea, producing symptoms such as, these researchers write, burbling, rumbling (those 2 are different?), pain, and loose stools.

So all you have to do to prevent this embarrassment is avoid eating apples and pears before a meeting, right? Yes, in part. But often the main culprit, these researchers say, in producing excess gas from fructose malabsorption is the fructose that is used as a sweetener in fruit juice and soda pop.

So, I guess the next time you're in need of something to drink because your throat is dry during some stressful event, such as, for example, when you're trying to pick up someone, you shouldn't reach for a Coke to slake your thirst. Try some chamomile tea instead.


Art Hister, MD 
in association with the MediResource Clinical Team