What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome, also known as IBS, is a digestive disorder that affects the large intestine. The medical community estimates that 5-10% of people worldwide suffer from IBS symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. More than six million people in the United States suffer from IBS, considered one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders.
IBS can also cause emotional and psychological distress due to its penchant for sudden flare-ups, which can be socially isolating.
The good news is that irritable bowel syndrome isn't all doom and gloom. By managing stress through exercise or yoga, consuming probiotics to help digestion, and avoiding trigger foods (greasy meals and alcohol), those with IBS can keep their symptoms under control.
Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Physical IBS symptoms can present differently in different individuals. You may not experience all the symptoms listed below, but any combination could indicate the condition. In addition, IBS can “change its stripes,” so to speak, as its severity waxes and wanes over time.
The most common irritable bowel syndrome symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- Bloating and gas
- Constipation, diarrhea, or both
- Urgent bowel movements
- Loss of appetite
- Fatigue or exhaustion
- Mucus in the stool
- Incomplete evacuation, or feeling as though you still have to go
If you experience any of these symptoms regularly or have chronic pain, constipation, or diarrhea, it’s time to talk to your healthcare provider about IBS.
IBS’ Mental Health Toll
If unmanaged, the recurring pain, discomfort, flatulence, and fatigue caused by IBS can cause moodiness in some sufferers, exacerbate unresolved emotional issues, and lead to:
- Sleep disturbances
- Poor self-esteem
- Social isolation
What Causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Possible causes of IBS include an imbalance of healthy bacteria in the gut, certain medications, food intolerances, and psychological stressors. Although some medical professionals believe this condition has a genetic component, research is still inconclusive.
When it comes to diet, moderation is key. Focus on high-fiber plant-based meals and limit dairy and gluten intake until you figure out which foods trigger symptoms. If you’re looking for a list of foods to avoid with irritable bowel syndrome, many manage their symptoms by steering clear of or significantly reducing:
- Fried or processed foods
- Dairy products
- Caffeinated drinks
- Alcoholic beverages
- Carbonated beverages
- Artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes
- Fast food meals (high in saturated fat)
- Processed meats such as salami and pepperoni
- Spicy foods
IBS Is Caused in Part by Food Intolerances, not Food Allergies
While most IBS patients are sensitive to certain types of food, most do not have a clinical food allergy, which can include itching, hives, swelling, and potentially deadly anaphylactic shock. IBS is not a life-threatening condition.
Stress, Lifestyle, Medications and IBS
Stress and anxiety are two big contributors to IBS – they can increase your body's sensitivity to pain and lead to more frequent episodes of cramping or bloating. Most healthcare professionals recommend rest and avoiding high-stress situations until symptoms ease.
Additional lifestyle choices such as not getting enough sleep, drinking alcohol in excess, or smoking cigarettes can all cause or trigger IBS. Finally, taking certain medications can contribute to irritable bowel syndrome if you’re already predisposed to having it; antibiotics, in particular, have been linked to IBS flare-ups. Talk to your doctor if you believe over-the-counter or prescriptions could be causing your IBS symptoms.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome vs. Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are two conditions that affect the digestive system, but they have some major differences.
- IBS is a functional disorder of your large intestine that causes crampy abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation.
- IBD is an autoimmune or inflammatory disorder where your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body's organs like the small intestine and colon.
While both can cause digestion problems such as diarrhea, patients with IBS typically experience bouts of symptoms followed by symptom-free periods. On the other hand, those with IBD usually experience ongoing inflammation, and other symptoms tend to last longer than the bouts of those experiencing IBS. IBD can also result in serious complications such as deformity of the intestine.
Ultimately, IBS can often be managed with dietary and lifestyle changes, while IBD requires ongoing medical attention because it is an autoimmune condition.
Treatments and Self-care for IBS
Living with irritable bowel syndrome can be challenging, so it's important to take good care of your body and mind.
Start by listening to the signals from your gut. When you feel discomfort, don't immediately reach for an over-the-counter solution – instead, think about how to make your environment more soothing. Take deep breaths and find ways to relax, like writing in a journal or starting a mindfulness routine.
Medical Treatment for IBS
In some cases, your healthcare provider may suggest pharmaceuticals to treat or reduce symptoms. Depending on severity and frequency, medical treatment may include:
- Anti-diarrheal medication
- Anticholinergic medication to relieve bowel spasms
- Anti-depressants, including SSRI and tricyclic variations
Remember, if you’re living with irritable bowel syndrome, practice self-care by finding a supportive community. It’s a great way to maintain your mental health while going through IBS flare-ups; if friends and family members don't understand what you're going through, seek out people who do.
Can Physical Exercise Alleviate IBS?
Yes. People with irritable bowel syndrome often find relief through physical exercise that is gentle and not too strenuous. Many sufferers have found relief in light yoga, Pilates, and tai chi, as they help manage stress. In addition, walking, jogging, and swimming have been shown to be particularly beneficial in alleviating symptoms of IBS, as they reduce inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract.
If you prefer more intense physical exercise, don’t write off strength training or HIIT workouts completely. Keep at it and take breaks as needed and be willing to modify your routine. Always check with your doctor or physical therapist first to ensure that the exercises are safe for you. A good exercise routine can do wonders for people who are fighting irritable bowel syndrome.
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