Bloating, abdominal pain, cramping, gas, diarrhea, constipation (or both)…any or all of these symptoms can be associated with a condition called Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS for short.
Do you suffer from any of these symptoms?
Talking about IBS and its symptoms can be hard and even embarrassing for many people.
After all, we are talking about gas, bowel movements, stool (poop), cramping, bloating, emergency trips to the bathroom and what happens when the body isn’t functioning properly to manufacture and or eliminate waste products.
Whether you have already been diagnosed with IBS or are having symptoms that make you suspect that you have it, it’s time to learn more about how to manage your lifestyle to minimize the impact of this often life altering condition.
What’s Happening in My Belly?
IBS is considered a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder. Functional GI disorders occur when the GI tract is not acting/functioning normally, but there is no damage seen in the intestinal tract, as there often is in other diseases in the GI tract.
Here's a diagram by Mayo Clinic that shows the abnormal contractions in your belly with IBS:
In general, IBS is a group of chronic symptoms that include both abdominal discomfort and changes in bowel habits, occurring about twice as frequently in women as in men.
IBS occurs most often in people younger than 45, and according to the National Institute of Health, it is estimated that 10 – 15% of adults in the U.S. are affected by it.
Symptoms can be distressing – leading people who suffer from IBS to become anxious over locating the nearest bathroom, should IBS rear its ugly head while they are working or away from home.
Doctors classify IBS according to its effect on the consistency of your stool. Yes, it boils down to how your poop is formed.
This important piece of information is helpful as it plays a part in approaches to treatment.
There are four categories:
- IBS – C: This is IBS with constipation as the primary bowel movement type. More than 25% of all bowel movements in this type of IBS are hard, and less than 25% are watery or loose.
- IBS – D: This is IBS with primarily diarrhea or loose, watery stools. More than 25% of all stools are loose or watery, and less than 25% are hard or formed.
- IBS – M: This is IBS with mixed bowel movements. At least 25% of the stools are either hard or loose and watery.
- IBS – U: This is considered “unsubtyped”, that is associated with less than either 25% hard or loose, watery stools. In other words, in this category, there is not a specific type of bowel movement that predominates.
In addition to these classifications, people who suffer from IBS can have symptoms that are a result of the effects of IBS.
People who are constantly constipated may suffer from hemorrhoids as a result of constantly straining to have a bowel movement. Persistent diarrhea can aggravate hemorrhoids, and can also lead to dehydration, if fluids are not adequately replaced.
IBS can also lead to poor nutrition if certain foods are simply avoided and a suitable (nutritional) replacement is not made.
For many years, because of the variety of ways in which IBS presents itself, doctors were not quite sure what to make of it. For years, doctors just said IBS was “all in the head” of patients who would come to them with their list of symptoms.
What physicians now understand is that IBS is a complicated interplay of both physical and mental causes, and treatment must reflect and address all of the underlying issues.
What Causes IBS?
The simple answer is, we don’t yet know exactly what causes IBS.
We are learning a tremendous amount about the number of factors that may create this condition however…
IBS may be initiated with a physical problem but there is a loose link to mental health as well. Poor neural communication between the brain and the GI system can lead to confusion in the GI tract, creating complications in digestion. Either a slower than normal or accelerated gut motility (how quickly food is moved through the intestines) can cause either constipation or diarrhea.
Some research indicates that a bacterial infection may be one of the causes of IBS, although this is still being studied as not all subjects who develop these bacterial infections go on to develop IBS.
An imbalance or change in the amount or type bacteria that reside in the gut may also be a factor in IBS. Certain types of bacteria are know to cause excessive gas and diarrhea, which are common symptoms that are often associated with IBS.
Genetics may be a factor, as people who are diagnosed with IBS often reveal that there are family members who have a history of GI disorders. Ask you parents, aunts, uncles, and siblings if they experience any recurring symptoms associated with GI distress. There is much to be learned from gathering a good family health history.
Sensitivity to certain foods may play a part in exacerbating symptoms of IBS.
Food sensitivity is different than a food allergy. A food allergy triggers an immune response such as hives, wheezing, or anaphylaxis, and in certain circumstances can be life threatening.
A food sensitivity will create symptoms such as bloating, gas, cramping, or diarrhea that while uncomfortable and distressing, are not necessarily cause for alarm like a true food allergy might.
There is a loose relationship that appears between those suffering with IBS and psychological health. Often, conditions such as anxiety, panic disorder, or depression, are conditions that frequently accompany patients with IBS. Understanding the role that psychological health and stress plays in IBS may help many people make adjustments in their lifestyle that can help to manage their symptoms better.
I Have IBS…Now What?
The bad news is that there is not a simple cure for IBS.
The good news is that there are a number of options for you to explore to help manage symptoms and return to a normal lifestyle.
The first step is to create a food journal or diary. This can be a valuable tool, not only for self-discovery, but also to help guide your healthcare provider in exploring all of the options that are available as treatments.
What to put in that food diary? Write down what you eat and drink as well as the time you eat. Jot down the symptoms that you experience, the time those symptoms occur, and how long they last. Over the course of a month, it is likely that a pattern may emerge, that can help identify some of the triggers. In addition to the nuts and bolts of what you are eating, make note of your mental status daily. Are you nervous or stressed? Has something been weighing heavily on your mind? As stress may play a factor, logging this type of information can also help guide you as you seek relief from IBS.
Take a good look at the journal. Share it with someone you trust, who might be able to help look at it objectively to see what patterns emerge.
Certain foods and beverages can trigger bouts of IBS symptoms or make existing symptoms worse. For some, coffee (caffeine) and alcohol both exacerbate symptoms. For others, wheat, dairy, or foods containing artificial sweeteners are triggers. The triggers are different for every person suffering from IBS, so understanding how your body reacts to foods is critical to finding relief.
Your New Diet
Making simple modifications to your diet can often result in significant improvements in symptoms of IBS. By limiting foods high in certain types of carbohydrates, known as "short chain carbohydrates," many people report improvement in their symptoms.
These short chain carbs such as the ones found in raw fruits and veggies, legumes, and wheat products, are not easily digestible by some people, and result in abdominal discomfort including many of the symptoms associated with IBS.
Keep a food journal for a few weeks about what you eat, and jot down any symptoms that follow.
Comparing your food journal and symptoms to the list may give you some clues as to what food triggers to avoid and what other choices you might include in your diet that may be more agreeable to your system.
In addition to choosing the right foods, some people notice an improvement in their symptoms when gluten is removed from their diet. Others report that eliminating foods that tend to create gas has beneficial effects. While there is no doubt that foods such as raw fruits, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower are nutritionally sound, if these exacerbate IBS symptoms, cut them out of your diet.
Managing when and how much you eat may help symptoms. Eating at regular times, or eating more frequent but smaller meals may also reduce symptoms of IBS.
Exercise and Hydrate
If there are two things that can help in any number of conditions, it is making sure to get adequate exercise and hydration. Exercise can help with GI motility (specifically, it can get the bowels moving), but also is an excellent stress reliever.
Drinking plenty of water will help soften hard stools if constipation is an issue, and will help replace lost fluids in the case of diarrhea.
You Are Not Alone
While the symptoms of IBS can be distressing to experience and embarrassing to discuss, know that this condition strikes people across the board.
Celebrities such as Cybil Shepard, Tyra Banks, and Jenny McCarthy suffer from IBS and thanks in part to their public admission, more light is being shed on researching the causes of IBS as well as developing treatment strategies.
With research comes knowledge, and dietary changes and stress management techniques can be extremely helpful in minimizing symptoms of IBS. Hopefully, armed with this knowledge, you won’t feel compelled to immediately determine the fastest route to the bathroom every time you walk into a new or unfamiliar building.
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