If you frequently experience abdominal pain, diarrhea, cramps, bloating, or constipation, you may be experiencing Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). An uncomfortable gastrointestinal disorder, IBS can be triggered by food, medication, or emotional stress and disrupts the lives of around 7-16% of the adult population in the United States. Here is a brief rundown.

What is IBS? 

Irritable Bowel Syndrome can also be referred to as irritable colon or bowel, spastic colon, mucous colitis, and a nervous stomach triggered by anxiety or stress. IBS can sometimes be confused with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), an inflammation of the digestive tract. 

Symptoms of IBS may include abdominal pain, bloating, frequent bowel movements, diarrhea, constipation, and gas.

Symptoms of IBS may include:

  • Abdominal pain 
  • Bloating
  • Frequent bowel movements or diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Gas

Types of IBS 

  • IBS with constipation (IBS-C): can cause strenuous infrequent bowel movements accompanied with abdominal pain and bloating.  
  • IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D): the opposite of IBS-C and causes urgent, frequent, and loose bowel movements often accompanied with excessive and painful gas. 
  • IBS with mixed bowel movements/alternating constipation and diarrhea (IBS-M or IBS-A): categorized as having abnormal bowel movements that can be a mix of diarrhea and constipation. 
  • Post-Infectious IBS (PI-IBS): PI-IBS develops after you’ve had a gastrointestinal infection and diarrhea is the most common symptom with occasional vomiting.
  • Post-Diverticulitis IBS (PD-IBS): PD-IBS is another possible form of IBS that develops after having diverticulitis, a condition where the lining of the lower part of your large intestine gets inflamed. If developed, nausea, abdominal pain, constipation, and fever are common side effects. 

Risk Factors

  • Women: Although anyone can develop or deal with IBS, women are twice as likely as men. 
  • Age: IBS occurs more frequently in younger people, averaging from teen years to people in their 40’s.
  • Family History of IBS: Genes and environmental factors can play a role in the likelihood of IBS development. 
  • Mental Health: Mental health challenges like anxiety and/or depression can increase physical, mental, and emotional stress, which can lead to IBS or symptoms of IBS. 

Potential Triggers (Diet & Stress)

Diet plays a key role in managing IBS and preventing flare ups. Some foods like high-processed foods with added sugars and refined grains (white flour) can trigger IBS-related pain, constipation, or diarrhea, but varies person to person.  

Stress and anxiety are other common triggers of IBS and can worsen or aggravate already uncomfortable symptoms like stomach pain, constipation, diarrhea, cramping, gas, and bloating.  

Stress and anxiety activate your nervous system (sympathetic system) that sets off chain reactions that can slow or even stop digestive processes from occurring properly. Intense emotions can also send pain signals to the gut, and may cause your colon to react or make your mind more aware of spasms in the colon.   

Medicine and Treatment 

Although there is no cure for IBS, an adjusted diet or direction from your doctor can ease pain and help to relieve some side effects. 

To ease IBS constipation, drink plenty of water and fluids daily. Try to avoid foods that are ultra-processed or have added sugar. Also avoid refined grains like white flour (grains that are not whole). Increase your fiber intake through fiber-rich fruits, whole grains, vegetables, prunes, and legumes which help digestion. 

To ease frequent bowel movements or diarrhea, avoid fatty or fried foods and stay away from your known food intolerances (like dairy or gluten). Try increasing intake of soluble fiber that can add bulk to bowel movements (soluble fiber can be found in foods like brown rice, dried fruits, whole-grain pasta, and oats). In contrast, insoluble fiber softens stool. It is important to have a balance of the two, and drink plenty of water to ensure the benefits of fiber. 

To ease anxiety or stress, find quiet moments throughout the day to practice breathing and mindfulness. Regular exercise is also an excellent way to maintain stress levels. And ensure you get 7-8 hours of sleep each night on average to have enough energy to last the whole day.

If your doctor does recommend medication, laxatives, added fiber, and anti-diarrheal medication are among the common items that help ease IBS symptoms. 

Note: It is recommended to consult your primary doctor for a diagnosis based on symptoms or before furthering with any dramatic lifestyle or health changes.

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