IBS: What It Is And What Treatments Can Help
The symptoms you need to watch out for.
Going to the bathroom is one of those private habits no one really wants to talk about, but when it becomes a serious problem, it’s worth addressing. Millions of people suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common digestive disorder that affects the large intestine, resulting in irregular bowel movements, cramps, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, nausea and fatigue. The symptoms of IBS can range from mildly disruptive to downright debilitating.
Some people experience diarrhea, while others have chronic constipation. Oftentimes, people with IBS suffer from both. IBS is unpredictable, and symptoms vary with each person. Living with long-term IBS can impact everyday activities affecting their jobs, social lives, personal relationships, and even mental health.
Interestingly, IBS affects more women than men, and one report shows increased symptoms can occur for women ages 40 to 49. This is due to hormonal fluctuations associated with perimenopause because the receptor cells for estrogen and progesterone are located throughout the digestive tract.
The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but the Mayo Clinic lists factors that play a role in developing the symptoms. They include:
Muscle contractions in the intestine
The intestinal walls have muscles that contract to move food through your digestive system. These contractions play a critical role in your bowel movements. Contractions that are too strong and fast cause diarrhea, while contractions that are too weak and slow will cause constipation.
Abnormalities in the nerves of your digestive system can disrupt communication between the brain and the intestines, causing your body to overreact in pain, diarrhea or constipation.
Changes in gut microbes
There may be changes in bacteria that normally reside in the intestines and play a pivotal role in our health. Research indicates that the microbes in people with IBS might be different from those in healthy people. Although stress can exacerbate IBS symptoms, it does not cause IBS. Other triggers that can affect IBS are associated with certain foods and beverages, including wheat, dairy products, citrus fruits, beans, cabbage and carbonated drinks.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for IBS, but many people benefit from a variety of different treatments that can effectively relieve certain symptoms. Most doctors would first suggest diet and lifestyle changes that can contribute to IBS flares.
Some of these options include getting regular exercise, cutting back on caffeine, eating smaller meals, avoiding certain foods, minimizing stress, and taking probiotics (the good bacteria normally found in the intestines) to help regulate the functioning of the digestive tract.
Since IBS is very individualized, some treatments work better for some than others, and figuring out what is most effective in managing your symptoms might take time and a lot of trial and error. Sadly, not all treatments are successful for everyone. You should definitely consult your doctor.
Eliminating specific foods and trying different diets can be confusing and overwhelming.
Here are six options that many doctors suggest.
Adding foods high in fiber to your diet can help move your bowels more consistently and prevent constipation. Foods that are high in fiber are most fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains.
For some people with IBS, eating more fiber can increase symptoms of gas and diarrhea. Eliminating insoluble fiber — foods that don’t dissolve in water, such as whole grains — and sticking to foods rich in soluble fiber — foods that dissolve in water, such as certain fruits and vegetables — might help ease digestion and improve bowel movement.
For some people, eating foods with gluten can increase IBS symptoms. While not all IBS patients are affected by gluten, some have an intolerance that can trigger IBS symptoms.
Many IBS sufferers use the elimination diet to identify which foods most affect their symptoms. Since each case is highly individualized, this diet can be most helpful in managing IBS. It takes a lot of trial and error to figure out the main culprits that disrupt your digestion, but the process can produce effective results.
A healthy low-fat diet is good for your overall health and also can help stabilize IBS symptoms. Eating rich, fried, fattening and spicy foods often can trigger flares for many people with IBS.
Low FODMAP diet
FODMAPs — the acronym stands for “fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols” — are certain carbohydrates that many people with IBS have difficulty digesting because they absorb more water into the bowel. Avoiding these particular foods might help improve your IBS symptoms.
Other treatments include taking over-the-counter medications for regulating your bowels — such as laxatives, fiber supplements, antidiarrheals and probiotics. For severe cases, doctors can prescribe a variety of FDA-approved medications to treat specific chronic symptoms.
The good news is that IBS doesn’t increase your risk of gastrointestinal cancers, and rarely damages your intestinal tract. But it’s important to see your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms such as weight loss, rectal bleeding, vomiting, difficulty swallowing and persistent pain. These might be signs of a more serious condition.
Many IBS sufferers often cope with multiple symptoms affecting every aspect of their lives while people around them are not aware they are managing this chronic condition. Although up to 20 percent of Americans are affected by IBS, it is believed that millions of cases are unreported, due to the cultural stigma attached to the topic of bowels.
Nearly 2,000 patients with IBS reported in a survey by the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) that diagnosis of their IBS was typically made 6.6 years after symptoms began. If you are experiencing these symptoms and it is affecting the quality of your life, don’t wait that long to consult with a gastrointestinal doctor to explore possible treatment options.