There is a condition that affects 25-45 million people in the U.S., yet most don't know much about it. Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is a disorder of the large intestine, and sufferers often experience cramping, bloating, gas, and diarrhea or constipation (or both).
The experts at Methodist Health System break down the basics of IBS, including when to see a doctor for this incredibly common diagnosis.
What causes it?
While the precise cause of IBS isn't fully known, there are different factors that can play a role in the condition:
- Muscle contractions in the large intestine occur when food passes through the body's digestive tract. Quicker, more frequent contractions can cause gas, bloating, or diarrhea, while weak or slower contractions can lead to constipation and abdominal cramping.
- Changes in gut flora (the good bacteria in your intestines that aids in digestion and overall good health) can affect IBS.
- Abnormalities in the nervous system of the digestive tract can affect the way the abdomen reacts to the digestive process, which can cause pain and discomfort.
How do I know if I have IBS?
Your doctor will have to make that official diagnosis, but it can be difficult. There is not a definitive test, so most physicians will use your complete medical history along with standard diagnostic criteria to rule out other conditions (such as celiac disease or lactose intolerance).
Are some people more likely to get it than others?
Different external and internal factors trigger IBS, but women are twice as likely as men to experience it (this indicates that hormones may play a role in exacerbating symptoms). Food is an obvious trigger, but, since the role of food allergies or intolerance with IBS isn't fully understood, most physicians will recommend a diet that reduces or eliminates wheat, dairy products, citrus fruits, beans, cabbage, milk, and carbonated drinks.
If you have anxiety and depression, you may be more likely to experience symptoms of IBS more frequently or severely, but let's be clear: IBS is not caused by stress or mental illness.
Is it treatable?
Once you have your diagnosis, your doctor will work with you to manage stress, get enough sleep, and participate in a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise. They might also refer you to a registered dietician, who can help you develop new eating habits to prevent and minimize IBS symptoms. There is strong evidence that a diet low in FODMAP — short chain carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed in the small intestine — can help, and a dietician will supervise your participation in the diet.
Since it seems like pretty much anyone can get IBS, how can I prevent it?
Just like above, a healthy diet and lifestyle are key. Practicing mindfulness, managing stress, and participating in counseling are all highly recommended to keep the signs and symptoms from happening as frequently.
If any of this sounds familiar or you'd like to get your possible symptoms checked out, schedule an appointment with a physician that specializes in IBS and seek out the help of a registered dietician.