What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects the large intestine. Signs and symptoms include cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea or constipation, or both- for at least three months.
IBS can be uncomfortable… but it does not lead to serious disease, such as cancer, or permanently harm the large intestine.
What causes IBS?
The precise cause of IBS is not known. Factors that appear to play a role include:
- Muscle contractions in the intestine. The walls of the intestines are lined with layers of muscle that contract as they move food through your digestive tract. Contractions that are stronger and last longer than normal can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea.
- Nervous system. Abnormalities in the nerves in your digestive system may cause you to experience greater than normal discomfort when your abdomen stretches from gas or stool. Poorly coordinated signals between the brain and the intestines can cause your body to overreact to changes that normally occur in the digestive process, resulting in pain, diarrhea or constipation.
- Inflammation in the intestines. Some people with IBS have an increased number of immune-system cells in their intestines. This immune-system response is associated with pain and diarrhea.
- Severe infection. IBS can develop after a severe bout of diarrhea (gastroenteritis) caused by bacteria or a virus. IBS might also be associated with a surplus of bacteria in the intestines (bacterial overgrowth).
- Changes in bacteria in the gut (microflora). Microflora are the “good” bacteria that reside in the intestines and play a key role in health. Research indicates that microflora in people with IBS might differ from microflora in healthy people.
Who can get IBS?
Anyone can get IBS… however, you are more likely to get IBS if:
- You are young. IBS occurs more frequently in people under age 50.
- You are female. In the United States, IBS is more common among women. Estrogen therapy before or after menopause also is a risk factor for IBS.
- You have a family history of IBS. Genes may play a role, and many shared factors in a family’s environment or a combination of genes and environment.
- Have a mental health problem. Anxiety, depression and other mental health issues are associated with IBS. A history of sexual, physical or emotional abuse also might be a risk factor.
What is the treatment for IBS?
There is no cure for IBS, but there are things you can do to feel better. Treatment may include:
- Changing your diet
- Taking medication
- Counseling and stress relief
Changing your diet
Foods do not cause IBS but eating certain food may start some IBS symptoms. You can ease the symptoms of IBS by changing some eating habits.
Find out which foods make your symptoms worse by writing in a journal:
- What you eat during the day
- What symptoms you have
- When symptoms occur
You will want to limit or avoid these foods. Problem foods may be:
- Milk and milk products like cheese or ice cream
- Caffeinated drinks like coffee
- Carbonated drinks like soda, especially those that contain artificial sweeteners (like sorbitol) or high-fructose corn syrup
- Some fruits and vegetables
Other ways to ease symptoms are:
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet.
- Eating more high-fiber foods such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables (especially for people with constipation). Add foods with fiber to your diet a little at a time to let your body get used to them. You should aim to eat 20 grams of fiber per day.
- Drinking 6 to 8 glasses of water a day (especially for people with diarrhea). It is unclear whether this helps IBS symptoms, but it can help treat dehydration that sometimes happens with diarrhea.
- Avoiding large meals, which can cause cramping and diarrhea in people with IBS. If this happens to you, try eating 4 or 5 small meals a day. Or, eat less at each of your usual 3 meals.
Your doctor may have you try medication to help with symptoms:
- Fiber supplements such as psyllium (Metamucil) to help control constipation.
- Anti-diarrheal medications, such as loperamide (Imodium), to help control diarrhea.
- Antispasmodic agents such as peppermint oil or dicyclomine to slow contractions in the bowel, which may help with diarrhea and pain.
Counseling and stress relief
Many people who seek care for IBS also have anxiety, panic, or depression. Stress is also an issue for people with IBS because it can make the symptoms worse. Research shows that psychological therapy can help ease IBS symptoms.
The digestive specialists of Hunterdon Gastroenterology Associates are here to help! If you are experiencing, or have questions about your digestive health, give us a call at 908-483-4000 and find us online at www.HunterdonGastro.com
Mayo Clinic; Irritable Bowel Syndrome. 2019
WebMD; Who is at Risk for Irritable Bowel Syndrome? 2019
Women’s health, Office on Women’s Health: Irritable Bowel Syndrome. 2020