Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): What are the symptoms, causes, and treatments

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): What are the symptoms, causes, and treatments

Do you experience chronic abdominal pain, bloating and changes in bowel movements that significantly affect your quality of life?

Everyone has experienced an upset stomach at some point. But for some, abdominal discomfort and digestive issues can be ongoing and make even the simplest of activities difficult. It could be caused by Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a common disorder that affects the colon or large intestine, often leading to intense cramping, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and uncomfortable abdominal pain.

IBS has become increasingly prevalent over the past 20 years and is estimated to affect 15% of the population worldwide, affecting more women than man. After the common cold, IBS is reportedly the second leading cause for absenteeism from work or school. Despite its prevalence, there are still many unknowns about what causes it, as well as how to accurately diagnose and effectively manage Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms.

If you suspect you may have IBS, it's important to understand what this condition involves and getting diagnosed. In this blog post, we’ll cover the symptoms of IBS as well as potential causes and IBS treatment options so you can work toward a diagnosis with your doctor and get on the road to relief!

What's the difference between Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)?

These two conditions are commonly confused, as they both involve chronic digestive issues. It’s important to note that Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease are not the same condition. While both involve intestinal issues, they have different underlying causes and require different treatments.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is one of the chronic functional gastrointestinal disorders, and the most common intestinal problem (link). This gastrointestinal disorder involves abdominal cramping, pain, bloating and changes in bowel habits. It's considered a functional disorder because it does not cause any structural damage to the GI tract. Most of the pain is caused by gas production, which IBS does not increase your risk of developing serious intestinal diseases such as colon cancer. IBS is sometimes also called an irritable colon.

On the other hand, IBD is a gastrointestinal disease which is one of the inflammatory disorders. It can involve different parts of the gastrointestinal tract and have serious long-term complications if left untreated. IBD includes conditions like Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis, which produce inflammation in the intestinal tract and can cause severe damage to the digestive system, especially the gut lining, if not managed properly.

While they are distinct disorders, IBS and IBD can have similar symptoms including abdominal pain, cramping, bloating and changes in bowel movements hence the confusion. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to talk to your doctor right away to understand your condition.

What are the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

The most common symptoms of IBS are abdominal pain or discomfort that can range from mild to severe and may come and go over time.  There are also other symptoms, typical IBS symptoms include:

It's important to keep in mind that everyone experiences IBS differently, and symptoms can vary from person to person. If you experience any of these symptoms for at least 3 days a month for 3 months or more, it’s best to speak with your doctor about possible diagnosis.

What are the 3 types of IBS?

There are three main types of IBS and the symptoms vary between these sub-types:

• IBS with constipation (IBS-C) – Characterized by hard, difficult to pass stools and fewer than 3 bowel movements per week

• IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D) – Characterized by frequent loose or watery stools and urgent need to have a bowel movement

• Mixed IBS (IBS-M) – Characterized by alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea

It’s important to note that you may experience more than one type of IBS. Your doctor will be able to determine the best course of action for you based on your particular symptoms and severity.

How does IBS affects your bowel habits?

IBS can affect your bowel habits in different ways. Some people may experience a decrease in the number of bowel movements per day, while others may experience an increase. More symptoms include:

Can IBS cause weird stool?

Yes, IBS can cause strange-looking stools and make your stool look different. It can be narrow or pencil-thin stools and mucus in the stool. In some cases, people with IBS may also experience a change from constipation to diarrhea (or vice versa).

Is IBS the same as a spastic colon?

The colon is the part of the large intestine that stores and excretes feces. A 'spastic colon' refers to when there is an increase in intestinal muscle spasms, which then creates a spasm sensation, frequent bowel movements, cramping and diarrhea. It's not a condition in and of itself, but rather it is a symptom of something else going on in your body. The term "spastic" refers to the way in which your intestine contracts when you experience symptoms of IBS. The most common health condition resulting in colon spasms is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but other issues may also cause these contractions. These include:

How do you diagnose IBS?

Diagnosing IBS can be difficult since there is no single test that can definitively diagnose the condition. To diagnose IBS, a bowel specialist, called gastroenterologist, may use a combination of tests. Including blood tests, stool samples screening for a substance called fecal calprotectin or a parasites stool exam, imaging and endoscopic procedures to rule out other medical conditions such as celiac disease as causes for your symptoms. They may also inquire about possible red flags such as blood in your stool, or unintended wait loss. And ask about your family history to understand the possible risk of colon cancer. For an IBS diagnosis our doctor may also ask you questions about your lifestyle and diet, as well as questions about your symptoms. Once all other possible conditions have been ruled out, your doctor may diagnose IBS based on the Rome IV criteria. This is a set of criteria that help doctors identify individuals who have functional GI disorders such as IBS.

What causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

The exact cause why IBS develops is unknown, but there are several factors that may contribute. These include:

Food intolerance

Certain foods such as dairy (lactose intolerance), wheat, and sugars can trigger symptoms in some people. Large meals can also make ibs symptoms worse, and it may help to eat smaller meals.

Stress

Stressful events or ongoing stress can trigger or make your IBS symptoms worse. The intestine is connected to the brain via hormone and nerve signals that travel between the bowel and the brain. These signals affect bowel function and symptoms. The nerves can become more active during times of stress, which can cause the intestines to be more sensitive and contract more frequently making your ibs worse.

Hormone Imbalances

Changes in hormone levels can affect the smooth muscle contractions of the intestines, leading to symptoms. In addition, studies have shown that hormones like serotonin and its receptors play a role in IBS. Serotonin is involved in regulating many bodily functions including digestion and intestinal movements. Abnormal levels of serotonin or changes in the way it works are thought to be linked to IBS.

Bacterial Overgrowth/Gut Dysbioses

An imbalance of beneficial and harmful bacteria in the gut can cause dysfunctional digestion, leading to IBS-like symptoms. Although more research is needed to fully understand how this works.

Infection

An infection such as salmonella or giardia can cause inflammation in the intestines, can cause postinfectious IBS.

Genetics

Some individuals may be more likely to develop IBS due to genetic factors.

It’s important to note that these are only potential contributing factors and not necessarily the root cause of IBS. It’s important to speak with your doctor and have any necessary tests performed in order to get an accurate diagnosis and determine the best treatment plan for you. It is important to keep in mind that no one factor causes IBS, and various combinations of factors can lead to the development of IBS symptoms.

Is IBS a serious disease?

IBS is a chronic condition that can cause significant disruption to your life. While it typically isn't a serious health threat, it can cause long-term discomfort and other symptoms such as fatigue and changes in appetite. In some cases, IBS may be linked to other conditions such as depression or anxiety. If you're experiencing any symptoms of IBS, it's important to speak with your doctor in order to determine the best course of action for you based on your particular symptoms and severity. With the right diagnosis and treatment plan, it's possible to improve your quality of life and manage flare-ups more effectively.

Can you suddenly develop IBS?

Yes, it is possible to suddenly develop IBS. However, there may be underlying factors that have contributed to the condition such as changes in your diet or an infection. It's important to speak with your doctor in order to determine what may have caused the sudden onset of symptoms and develop a plan for managing them through diet changes with a dietitian.

How to treat IBS and relieve symptoms?

The best way to treat IBS and relieve IBS symptoms depends on the individual and the severity of their symptoms. In more than 85% of the cases changes in diet, exercise and stress management help alleviate IBS symptoms. Lifestyle changes such as regular exercise, healthy eating habits, adequate sleep and relaxation techniques can help improve symptoms. Additionally, dietary changes such as reducing intake of high-FODMAP foods (fermentable oligo-di-monosaccharides and polyols) help reduce symptoms. In addition to eating plenty of fiber-rich foods, avoiding trigger foods such as dairy and processed foods, and reducing stress can be beneficial for those with IBS. Medications like fiber supplements, antispasmodics and antidepressants may be prescribed to help reduce pain and relieve bowel symptoms.

Can yoga help with IBS symptoms?

Yoga can be an effective way to manage the symptoms of IBS. It may help reduce stress and anxiety, improve digestion, and reduce pain. Additionally, yoga can help with relaxation techniques that can be used when a flare-up occurs. It's important to speak with your provider and certified yoga instructor as some poses may be too strenuous or uncomfortable for those with IBS.

Are there any home remedies for IBS?

There are several home remedies that may help to manage IBS. These include eating smaller meals more frequently, avoiding triggers such as caffeine or carbonated beverages, reducing stress, and getting adequate sleep. Additionally, drinking peppermint tea or eating ginger can help to relax the muscles of the digestive tract and reduce abdominal pain. Probiotics may also help to restore the balance of bacteria in the gut. Foods like kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, yogurt, and miso contain probiotics that can help improve digestion.

What are the long term effects of Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

The long term effects of IBS can vary from person to person. While some people may experience mild symptoms that are easily managed with lifestyle changes and diet, others may experience more severe symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea which can lead to nutritional deficiencies or dehydration. Additionally, individuals with IBS may experience depression and anxiety due to the strain of managing their symptoms on a daily basis.

The bottom-line of living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome

If you’re struggling with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, know that you’re not alone. This condition is more common than you may think and although there is no cure for IBS, it is possible to manage the condition through diet and lifestyle changes. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing IBS, since the strategy to improve constipation with bowel urgency has different triggers than infrequent diarrhea.

It's therefore important to find your personal strategies together with a professional provider for managing your condition in order to reduce the risk of IBS flare ups.

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