Worried about irritable bowel syndrome? Hong Kong academics have 5 tips to reduce the risks

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“With this study, as the syndrome is, of a certain level, hereditary, we may know some high-risk patients or those who have other functional gastrointestinal disorders, and we are able to tell them that this study has clearly shown the benefits that can be brought by lifestyle management,” he added.

“Other than medication or other treatments, lifestyle changes have a certain degree of importance.”

The results of the study were published in leading medical journal Gut last month.

Irritable bowel syndrome is a common gastrointestinal disorder that affects about 16.6 per cent of Hong Kong adults on a monthly basis, as well as 4 per cent on a weekly basis.

Wu said common cases involved stomach pains or diarrhoea after eating, as well as feelings of nervousness, continuous bloating and constipation, and sudden and severe stomach aches that were severe enough to need visits to a hospital emergency department.

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The university’s study analysed the health data of 64,268 adults living in Britain with a mean age of 55.9. The information was collected by the UK Biobank over an average span of 12.6 years.

None of the participants were diagnosed with the condition during their first interviews, but about 961 of the group, or 1.5 per cent, were found to suffer from it by the end of the study.

The CUHK team found adults in the group who kept up one or two healthy habits were respectively 21 per cent and 36 per cent less likely to suffer from the condition than those than who had none of them.

The risk went down by 42 per cent among those who followed three of the five habits.

The study also found that quality sleep reduced the risk by 27 per cent, high-intensity exercise by 17 per cent and not smoking by 14 per cent.

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner Ho Fai-fai (left) says irritable bowel syndrome can be treated using acupuncture, herbal medicines and acupoint massage. Photo: Sammy Heung

University researchers said they chose to use UK information because Hong Kong lacked a large biobank that offered comprehensive information on lifestyle choices. They added the prevalence of the condition’s prevalence was largely unaffected by ethnic origin.

Wu said the condition was related to abnormal communication and coordination between the gut and brain, which caused dysfunctional bowel movements and reactions to organs from pain, and emotions, among other things.

He added genetic and dietary factors could also play a part.

Wu said the study showed sleep, exercise and smoking played a crucial role in prevention of the condition, which could be more significant than the direct impact on the gut from diet and alcohol intake.

“The control room of the gut in fact resides in the brain,” he explained. “Sleeping is basically the time for the control room to recharge.

“If you sleep poorly or frequently wake up in the middle of the night, it means the charger keeps detaching.

“There are also other factors such as stress and anxiety which also directly affect gastrointestinal functions, so an adequate amount of exercise can also alleviate stress and strengthen the gut immune system.”

But Wu added that the five habits would not be enough to reverse the condition among existing patients, who might need to seek out Western or traditional Chinese treatments.

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Vincent Chung Chi-ho, a researcher and associate professor at CUHK’s Jockey Club School of Public Health and Primary Care, said the study’s findings could also be explained through traditional Chinese medicinal theories.

The traditional Chinese medicine practitioner said the liver was in charge of the chi – the body’s vital energy – that flowed through the gut.

“When the chi is not flowing smoothly through the liver, it may lead to stomach ache, constipation or diarrhoea, which is similar to the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome,” he said.

“Quality sleep benefits the liver. When you are unable to vent your emotions, it may lead to the stagnation of chi in the liver.”

Fellow practitioner and researcher Ho Fai-fai said the research proved the importance of preventive treatment, a major part of traditional practice.

“According to ancient scriptures, methods include dietary adjustments, and a controlled lifestyle with a regular rest schedule, work-life balance and mental healthcare to regulate the yin and yang in our organs,” she added.

Ho said that, according to traditional Chinese medicine, irritable bowel syndrome could be treated using acupuncture, herbal medicines and acupoint massage.

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