Irritable bowel syndrome or IBS is one of the most common digestive issues. Learn everything you need to know about IBS.
·September 13th, 2021
IBS is one of the most common digestive disorders, affecting tens of millions of Americans, yet it can take years to acquire a formal diagnosis.
There are different types of IBS, but each includes some form of abdominal pain, cramping, a change in bowel habits, and other gastrointestinal symptoms.
IBS is a gut-brain axis disorder, meaning it can be triggered by the foods you eat or mental stressors and anxieties.
IBS is not life threatening but does affect quality of life; treatments including dietary modification, medication, behavioral therapy, and complementary therapies like acupuncture or massage can address symptoms as they flare up.
One of the most common disorders diagnosed by gastroenterologists (doctors who specialize in the digestive systems and its disorders) is also one of the most frequently misunderstood. Many people are quick to dismiss cramping, bloating and abdominal pain as nothing more than a “nervous stomach,” but it could be a sign of something more.
A lot of people who have these ailments may not realize they have what is medically known as irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. Because of this, people with IBS report an average span of 6.6 years between the onset of their symptoms and a formal diagnosis and treatment plan.
Irritable bowel syndrome is a condition where the gastrointestinal tract becomes dysfunctional in sensing and moving food and waste through the intestines and bowel. That’s because the nerves in the gastrointestinal tract are unusually sensitive, or “irritable” – hence the name.
Because these functions are regulated by the brain, IBS is known as a gut-brain axis disorder. The mind and the body work in tandem, and sometimes the two elements don’t communicate well with each other – when that happens, conditions like IBS can result.
Irritable bowel syndrome is not a singular diagnosis. In fact, researchers have identified three different types of IBS. To make a clear diagnosis, a healthcare professional needs to know what abnormal gastrointestinal symptoms a person is experiencing, including the type and frequency of bowel movements.
This information can help classify an IBS diagnosis into the correct category:
IBS with constipation (IBS-C): Hard, lumpy stools; straining when trying to pass a bowel movement; feeling like you need to use the restroom, but can’t.
IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D): Loose, watery stools; an urgent need to go.
IBS with mixed bowel habits (IBS-M): A mixture of hard and lumpy stools.
How many people have IBS?
According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, between 25 and 45 million Americans experience IBS, with more women than men reporting symptoms. Most persons with IBS are under the age of 50, and the most common age for onset is between 20 and 30 years.
Symptoms of IBS
Each person with irritable bowel syndrome experiences symptoms differently. Some may have continuous mild symptoms, while others experience severe, but infrequent flare-ups. Symptoms may appear once, then disappear forever, or they may come and go over weeks, years, or a lifetime. There is no one “typical” experience of IBS, but symptoms may include:
These symptoms can even vary from day to day. People with IBS have reported alternating between bouts of constipation and diarrhea, and some people only report symptoms in response to certain foods or emotional triggers.
How is IBS diagnosed?
Only a qualified medical professional is able to diagnose IBS. Because there is no formal diagnostic test for IBS, physicians first rule out other conditions that may cause the symptoms, such as inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease.
If there are no other explanations for the use what is known as the Rome Criteria, or a checklist of the most common symptoms related to IBS. These criteria include:
Recurrent abdominal pain on average at least 1 day per week in the past 3 months, associated with two or more of the following criteria:
An increase or decrease in bowel frequency
A change in form (appearance) of stool, such as becoming harder or softer
Symptoms are relieved by defecation
Common IBS triggers
Because irritable bowel syndrome is a brain-gut axis disorder, symptoms can be triggered on both ends of the axis – the brain and the gut. Triggers can vary from person to person, so keeping track of symptoms can help an individual ascertain what sets off their IBS flare-ups.
In some people with IBS, the gut can be particularly sensitive to certain foods: large meals, or foods high in fat, coffee, caffeine, or alcohol may set off symptoms like cramping or diarrhea. There is also research to suggest that certain types of sugars and sugar substitutes may kick off symptoms, as the gut may not have the enzymes required to digest the molecules.
Symptoms can also occur with the onset of intense intense psychological feelings, like stress or anxiety. As many as 90 percent of people with IBS also have an associated mental health issue, like anxiety or depression, that may influence the gut-brain axis.
Some women notice their IBS symptoms increase around the same time menstruation (more commonly known as “the period”) begins, and certain symptoms may also be affected by hormonal changes related to pregnancy or menopause. For this reason, IBS is sometimes misdiagnosed as a menstrual condition like endometriosis.
How serious is IBS?
IBS isn’t life-threatening. It also doesn’t increase the likelihood of contracting other life-threatening conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, or colon cancer. However, IBS can affect a person’s life in many significant ways.
According to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, irritable bowel syndrome is one of the most common causes of missing work or school, second only to the common cold. Persons with moderate to severe IBS often struggle with unpredictable symptoms that can impair their physical, emotional, economic, educational and social well-being.
Because of the effects IBS can have on a person, it’s important to talk with a primary healthcare provider to get a definitive diagnosis and treatment plan.
Is there a cure for IBS?
Treating IBS often requires a multi-faceted approach. Though IBS can be a chronic condition, it doesn’t have to rule a person’s life. By working with qualified professionals, relief from IBS is possible.
Experts say there are many ways a person can manage IBS symptoms, including:
Reducing daily intake of fatty foods or caffeinated beverages, which stimulate the colon
Identifying and reducing foods that cause bloating and abdominal discomfort (these vary from person to person, but may include dairy, sugary drinks, candy, and processed foods). A dietitian or nutritionist can be especially helpful in establishing an appropriate diet for IBS symptoms.
Medications, such as muscle relaxants to prevent intestinal cramping, laxatives and antidiarrheal medications to control bowel movements, antibiotics to clear infections or recalibrate gut flora, or low-dose antidepressants to fortify your body against emotional stress.
Behavioral therapy, to manage the emotions that may trigger symptoms.
Alternative therapies, such as acupuncture or therapeutic massage. Herbal medicine or naturopathy may also be useful.
If you think you may be experiencing IBS, the right provider can help you build a personalized plan to support your wellbeing. Connect with a credentialed expert who serves your area here.