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Too Many Tummy Troubles?

Can children have irritable bowel syndrome? My granddaughter often gets tummy aches or diarrhea after a meal.

Answer (Published 10/13/2009)

Anyone can get irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), including children. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) reports that about 14 percent of high school students and six percent of middle school students report IBS-like symptoms. Boys and girls are affected equally, though among adults, IBS is more common in women than men.

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Once called "spastic colon," IBS is a combination of symptoms that may include constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, fatigue, and headaches that can be worsened by certain foods, stress and other irritants. It is the end result of nervous interference with the normal function of the lower digestive tract. The symptoms are variable and frequently change over time.

You should know, however, that in young children tummy aches are the most common stress-related symptom. I discussed your question with Dr. Sandy Newmark, a California-based pediatrician who is on the faculty of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. He notes that while IBS is more often diagnosed in teenagers than younger children, pediatricians see a lot of stress-related abdominal pain and diarrhea in young patients. If there is no indication of a medical problem, Dr. Newmark says that relaxation training, including breathing and self-hypnosis, often works wonderfully in children to help bring these problems under control. That squares with my recommendations for dealing with IBS at any age:

  • Learn to relax. Try my Relaxing Breath, biofeedback, yoga or meditation to help reduce stress.
  • Try hypnosis. Several scientific studies have shown that hypnosis can help ease IBS symptoms.
  • Try cognitive behavioral therapy. This form of psychotherapy can help you see how self-defeating thoughts and actions contribute to stress and subsequently to IBS symptoms.
  • Try acupuncture. This seems to help relieve bloating.
  • Exercise. Physical activity helps to maintain bowel regularity and reduce stress.

If you can identify any foods that seem to trigger IBS symptoms, try to avoid them (beans, raw fruit and vegetables appear to increase gas and bloating that can occur with IBS). Here is more information about IBS.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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