Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder (present in 10 to 15 percent of the adult population) that affects the large intestine. Signs and symptoms include cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea and/or constipation. IBS is a chronic condition that needs to be managed long-term.
Only a small portion of people suffering from IBS have severe symptoms. Most people can control their condition by managing their diets, lifestyle and stressors. More severe symptoms can be treated with medication and counseling. Although IBS is not life-threatening, it can be a significant healthcare and economic burden.
Of all groups of people, young women are at the greatest risk of developing IBS. Diagnosed patients oftentimes have a family history of IBS and/or mental health problems, but neither is a requirement for the disease.
The precise cause of IBS is not known, but there are a few factors that appear to play a role and triggers that seem to increase symptoms.
Factors that appear to play a role in the onset of IBS are:
– Irregular muscle contractions in the intestine
– Abnormalities in the nerves of the digestive system
– Inflammation in the intestines
– Severe infection and bacterial overgrowth
– Changes in microflora—the “good” bacteria in the intestines
Symptoms of IBS can be triggered by everyday factors such as food, stress, and hormones.
Although food allergies rarely cause IBS, many people have worse symptoms when they eat or drink certain foods or beverages, including wheat, dairy products, citruses, beans, cabbage, milk and carbonated drinks. Some patients find it helpful to follow a low FODMAP diet—which stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. Research suggests an increased sensitivity to these carbohydrates—including fructose (found in fruits and honey), lactose (in dairy), fructans (in wheat, garlic, and onions), galactans (in legumes), and polyols (used as artificial sweeteners and found in stone fruits like apricots, cherries, and nectarines).
Additionally, sufferers of IBS tend to experience worse symptoms during times of increased stress. But while stress may aggravate symptoms, it is not a proven cause of IBS.
Lastly, women are twice as likely to have IBS, which could indicate that hormonal changes can be a factor in the state of the disorder. Many women find their pain to be worse during or around their menstrual periods.
IBS can be difficult to diagnose. But most recently, scientists have been developing both a new sensor small enough to swallow and a noninvasive belt that listens to bowel sounds to transform how gut diseases are diagnosed and treated.
The majority of people diagnosed with IBS can control their symptoms with diet, stress management, probiotics and medicine. Seek out a medical professional if you think you or someone you know could be suffering from IBS.