To kick off Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Month, weare here to answer “What is IBS” with some of the most common causes, symptoms, and treatments of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
What is IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), is a common gastrointestinal disorder that affects how the large intestine works. Also referred to as irritable colon, spastic colon, mucous colitis, or spastic colitis; IBS is typically classified as a group of symptoms usually occurring simultaneously for more than six months.
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, about 10% to 15% of people in the United States have IBS of some level. The same study found that women are twice as likely to develop IBS, however, evidence to support why this may be is speculatory. IBS is different from IBD, a group of common bowel disorders such as Crohn’s Disease, and is not associated with a lower life expectancy or colon cancer.
IBS is a lifelong, chronic condition that requires long-term care and attention. While the vast majority of people with IBS can manage their symptoms fairly easily through managing their diet and lifestyle, more severe cases can occur which may require medication or therapy.
What Causes IBS?
The exact cause of IBS is unknown, with evidence pointing towards several reasons, such as complications following a bowel infection, to a miscommunication between the brain and the gut. Some of the prevailing theories as to why someone may develop IBS can include the following:
One of the most common theories as to why Irritable Bowel Syndrome can occur are complications associated with bowel infections. Postinfectious IBS (gastroenteritis) is thought to occur after a severe spell of diarrhea caused by a virus or bacterial infection that can occur in the stomach or intestines. The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders found that around 10% of people who suffer bacterial gastroenteritis develop IBS. Bacterial or viral infections of the GI tract can cause inflammation; a ‘delay’ or slow response to turning off this inflammatory response can lead to postinfectious IBS, which can last for years in some cases.
Nervous System Complications
Another popular theory associated with the cause of IBS is complications in the nervous system. Irregularities in the nerves that line the digestive system may cause an individual to feel more pain and discomfort when the abdominal muscles stretch from gas or stool. This ‘miscommunication’ between the gut and brain is thought to exaggerate pain associated with intestinal movements, which can make the body feel pain even when there is none.
Overactive Gut Microbes
Bacterial overgrowth is also thought to be a cause of IBS. Changes in the healthy bacteria, fungi, and viruses, which normally reside within the intestines, and play a key role in health, are thought to contribute to the development of IBS. Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) is a condition in which there is an excessive amount of bacteria within the small intestine. In a normal, healthy digestive system, this level of bacteria is relatively low, and this overgrowth is thought to contribute to the onset of IBS, although research is still needed to confirm this link.
The intestines, both large and small, are lined with muscles that contract to assist the movement of food through the digestive system. These contractions can become abnormal, meaning they can be stronger or weaker than normal, each causing discomfort or pain. Stronger contractions typically last longer and can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea; while shorter, weaker contractions can slow the movement of food, causing constipation or harder stools.
There is little evidence to suggest that IBS is caused by any sort of food intolerances or allergies. Individuals with IBS-like symptoms that are also sensitive to certain foods should consult a doctor. Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that causes a severe inflammatory response in the intestine to the protein gluten, can be a common cause of IBS-like symptoms that can be unresponsive to normal treatments of IBS.
What is IBS? – Symptoms
Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome can vary, but will typically persist for long periods, most often for three to six months at a time. While pain and discomfort associated with bowel movements are common for most individuals at some point in their lives, for individuals with IBS, symptoms are chronic, and can sometimes be debilitating.
Some of the most common symptoms associated with IBS are as follows:
- Abdominal pain
- Constipation or Diarrhea
- Bowel movements that feel uncontrollable, urgent, difficult to pass, or incomplete once passed
- Clear or white mucus with the stool
Some defining characteristics of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, along with any or all of the above-listed symptoms, are bowel movements that relieve pain or discomfort, changes in the appearance of the bowel movement, or changes in how often an individual has bowel movements.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome can occur in any individual at any time in their lives, however, there are some risk factors attributed to the onset and development of IBS in certain individuals. While research is slim when it comes to understanding what causes IBS, and who exactly is at risk, some of the commonly believed factors are listed below.
- Age: While IBS can occur at any age, it seems to be most common in adults under the age of 40.
- Women: Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with IBS. Some research points towards specific abnormalities in digestive nerve cells, while other studies simply state that men are less likely to seek medical attention in regards to IBS.
- Family History: As with a lot of disorders and conditions that have little known causes, genetics may play a role in the onset of IBS. Some studies have shown that a family history of IBS is thought to contribute to an individual’s likelihood of being diagnosed.
- Mental Health: Mental health is also thought to play a role in the development of IBS. People who suffer from large amounts of stress, or young children who experience traumatic or stressful events, are thought to be more likely to develop IBS. This may be due to the body’s response to stress, in which it releases a hormone called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), which can disrupt the bacteria in the gut. While it’s not clear what comes first, stress or IBS, the two have long been associated with one another.
There are many different treatments for IBS, ranging from managing diet and lifestyle to over-the-counter-medications and specific nutritional therapies. Treatments of IBS will typically focus on reducing symptoms and certain triggers, so that an individual may lead a healthier, more worry-free lifestyle.
Doctors and nutritionists will most commonly prescribe dietary restrictions such as avoiding high gas foods such as beans and lentils or carbonated and alcoholic beverages. Avoiding high levels of stress can be another effective way to combat IBS, as the two are thought to share some level of connection.
Certain medications have been shown to relieve IBS symptoms in more severe cases. Medications such as fiber supplements, anti-diarrheal medications, and laxatives can all help reduce the painful effects of digestive issues caused by IBS.
For more information on treatments and ways to manage IBS pain, read our article “Real Relief: How to Reduce IBS Symptoms”.
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