By Jeffrey Juneau
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) isn’t just the occasional stomach upset. It’s a chronic gastrointestinal disorder that can cause daily discomfort, constant challenges, and unpredictable symptoms.
Although IBS is sometimes confused with other conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and ulcerative colitis, it’s a unique disorder on its own. However, experts still don’t have a clear understanding of what IBS is or what causes it. What is known is that IBS doesn’t cause any structural damage to the large or small intestine, but it does change the way the intestine and the digestive system behave.
There are several theories as to why this happens, but the predominant belief is that signals between hormones and nerves get crossed. Your gut receives inaccurate signals from your brain saying you need to have a bowel movement, so your intestinal muscles contract or spasm when they’re not supposed to.
While the definition and cause of IBS are still unclear, its symptoms are all too evident to those who live with the condition. One in 10 people worldwide suffer from IBS and, although symptoms can vary from person to person, the most common ones include:
- Pain and cramping in the lower or entire abdomen that lessens after a bowel movement
- Diarrhea or unpredictable bowel movements with loose stool
- Bloating and/or constipation
- Increased gassiness
- Mucus in the stool
- Feeling like you can’t empty your bowels
Although IBS can last years or even a lifetime, symptoms can usually be controlled or managed through diet and lifestyle changes.
As mentioned, the exact cause of IBS is not yet known, but there are some factors that can possibly contribute and are common to many sufferers.
- Diet. There is no one food or type of food that triggers IBS, but some people have found that consuming certain foods and beverages, such as wheat, dairy, coffee, carbonated drinks, and alcohol, make their IBS symptoms worse. This may be tied to food allergies or intolerance, but this is not yet proven.
- Hormonal changes. IBS is more common in women, so it makes sense that common triggers are the hormonal changes that take place during monthly menstruation, while undergoing estrogen therapy, or during menopause.
- Bacteria. Often, IBS symptoms may become worse after a GI illness or after a course of antibiotics due to changing of the bacterial balance of the intestines.
- Stress. Most sufferers find that experiencing stress and anxiety, whether temporary or prolonged, increases the frequency and intensity of IBS symptoms. Evidence also suggests that people who went through stressful events at a young age have more symptoms of IBS.
Coping with IBS
Living with irritable bowel syndrome isn’t easy, but there are some steps you can take to make it more tolerable.
- Keep a food diary. Since diet is so closely tied to IBS, write down everything you eat and drink and keep a record of when your symptoms flare up. Then share your diary with your doctor so you can work together to identify patterns and which foods and beverages may be triggers.
- Reduce stress. It’s been shown that there’s a direct link between stress and IBS, although it’s not clear which causes which. Whatever the case, reducing stress and anxiety can help lessen IBS symptoms. Ask your doctor what stress relieving activities or medications they recommend.
- Stay in touch with your doctor. IBS is a chronic condition you shouldn’t try to manage on your own. Keep your doctor involved and let them know whenever you have a flare-up so they can monitor your condition.
- Be open with friends and family. It’s understandable that having IBS may feel embarrassing, but keeping it a secret can cause undue stress and anxiety for you. By letting your friends and family know about your condition, they’ll likely be much more understanding when IBS interferes with plans or causes you to not be as present as everyone would like.
- Consider medication or cognitive behavior therapy. Your IBS symptoms are not in your head in the sense that you’re imagining them, but there is a cognitive connection. For this reason, cognitive behavior therapy has been effective in helping those with IBS cope by teaching them how to calm their minds, relax their muscles, and deal with unpredictable symptoms. You can also talk with your doctor about medications that can help control your symptoms.
Kelsey-Seybold Clinic gastroenterologists are experts in identifying irritable bowel syndrome and helping patients manage their symptoms. If you’re living with IBS or think you may have the condition, call 713-442-0000 to make an appointment with me or one of our other GI specialists.
Dr. Juneau is a board-certified physician who specializes in Gastroenterology at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. He cares for patients at Kelsey-Seybold’s Spring Medical and Diagnostic Center. His clinical interests include hepatology, small bowel disease, and inflammatory bowel disease.