Think you have IBS? Think again

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011
Cow - Food Inc
Consumer research indicates that nearly 40% of people who think they have IBS may be lactose intolerant.

Consumer research released by Lactofree, a range of lactose-free* dairy products, found that 38% of people who think they suffer from IBS might in fact be lactose intolerant due to confusion surrounding diagnosis and management of both conditions.

The extent of this confusion is seen further in the amount of time people suffer before being properly diagnosed with lactose intolerance. The research found that 1 in 5 have been suffering with symptoms** such as bloating, diarrhoea, sickness and cramps for over a decade and 30% of these sufferers may have been taking medication unnecessarily due to treating IBS and not lactose intolerance.

Up to 15% of people in the UK are estimated to be lactose intolerant, but due to the similarity of symptoms and the relatively low awareness of lactose intolerance, sufferers could easily be misdiagnosed as having IBS.

The research found that despite high perceived understanding of lactose intolerance, respondents regularly linked their symptoms to dairy rather than just the lactose, the natural sugar found in dairy. However, on prompting with the actual symptoms of lactose intolerance, 54% of respondents were influenced to question their first diagnosis and indicated that their IBS might be more closely attributed to lactose intolerance - showing a greater need for general and medical awareness on the condition.

Identification and diagnosis of symptoms was also found to be a key area of frustration and concern for people. Despite a vast majority (80%) turning to their GP as a first port of call on experiencing the symptoms, respondents recorded low satisfaction ratings based on the GP's assessment and management of their symptoms. Other avenues for information include nutritionists (11%), friends and family (11%), dietitians (10%) and other healthcare professionals (16%).

Similarly, GPs surveyed within the research gave insight into the limitations and frustration they felt when it came to treating those presenting with common symptoms normally associated with IBS. Nutritional advice is often sought from GP's, however this is more associated with diabetes, obesity and coronary heart disease in accordance with NHS Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF) targets. As a result, food intolerance, particularly dairy related, is felt to be low on the GP agenda.

Dr Adam Fox, Consultant & Senior Lecturer in Paediatric Allergy commented on the findings, "It's clear that with upcoming NHS reforms and possible changes in QOF targets that lactose intolerance is not high on the GP agenda in relation to other more life threatening conditions. However, with time, money and resources being in short supply in the NHS, ensuring relatively straightforward conditions such as lactose intolerance do not clog up the system should be a priority. More simple, quick and effective outcomes can be sought if the right information is available to GP's and other healthcare professionals. When it comes to lactose intolerance, two GP appointments on diagnosis is one appointment too many."

Sian Porter, Dietitian, comments, "The research highlights common misconceptions surrounding management of lactose intolerance. This can lead to unnecessary dietary changes like cutting out dairy when those with the condition only need to avoid the lactose. As with many areas of nutrition, more needs to be done to help people understand and manage the condition."

Advising on or undertaking an appropriate elimination diet can be an effective way to determine the cause of symptoms. The diet involves eliminating all the lactose from your system by ensuring that your daily food intake does not include any lactose for two weeks - if your symptoms improve during this lactose free period then you may be lactose intolerant. Lactose is then gradually reintroduced to discover a person's tolerance levels. Most people can successfully undertake an elimination diet without the help of a doctor. However if you have any concerns whatsoever, other symptoms or medical problems or your symptoms do not improve, you should consult your GP or a health care professional.


Before the diet is started it's important to be aware that another cause of digestive discomfort is Cows' Milk Allergy, which can produce similar but more severe symptoms. "The most important thing to remember is that whilst food allergies involve the immune system, food intolerances do not", explains food allergy consultant, paediatrician Dr Adam Fox. With food allergies, "your immune system makes a mistake, and decides that certain foods are going to be seen as dangerous, therefore causing an inappropriate overreaction to them." Symptoms of milk allergies can translate to hives, vomiting, and gastric distress such as diarrhoea, constipation, or stomach pain, but it can also cause potentially fatal anaphylactic reactions, so those who are allergic to milk-products must avoid them altogether. If you think you may have a cows' milk allergy, you should seek advice from your GP or a registered dietitian.

For more information on lactose intolerance and the elimination diet