Understanding IBS

What exactly is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), also known as spastic colon or functional bowel disease, is a common type of gastrointestinal disorder that affects the large intestine (colon). According to U.S Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 20 percent of people in the U.S. have symptoms of IBS. However, only a fraction seeks medical help.

What exactly is IBS?

According to Rajesh Joseph, M.D., gastroenterologist with Norton Gastroenterology Consultants of Louisville, the walls of the intestines are lined with layers of muscle that contract and relax in a coordinated rhythm as they transfer food from the stomach, through the intestinal tract and into the rectum. If you have IBS, the contractions may be stronger and last longer than normal, causing abdominal pain, gas, bloating and diarrhea. However, the opposite may also occur, with weak intestinal contractions slowing down food passage and leading to hard, dry stools, also known as constipation.

“IBS can affect anyone but is more frequently reported by women,” Dr. Joseph said. “While this condition can affect people of all ages, it is more likely to occur in people who are in their teens through their 40s.”

IBS can greatly impact not only overall health, but also value and quality of life because it causes constant discomfort and the need for frequent bathroom breaks.

Can IBS be prevented?

Although studies are not conclusive as to what causes IBS in some people, treatments are available. One of the simplest treatments is making the right daily food choices. Certain foods may bring on symptoms, so discomfort can be reduced simply by avoiding those foods. Some of the most common triggers include chocolate, spices, fats, fruits, beans, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, milk, carbonated beverages and alcohol. By keeping a journal of what you eat, you can determine which foods give you tummy trouble.

Fiber plays an important role in the body’s digestive system. People with IBS tend to alternate between constipation and diarrhea because they are not getting the right amount of fiber. Adjusting the amount of fiber in your diet is a simple change that can make a huge difference.

“For those who suffer from constipation due to IBS, consider taking a fiber supplement. Fiber can be consumed through foods such as beans and fresh vegetables,” Dr. Joseph said. “Keep in mind that women should consume at least 25 grams of fiber per day; therefore, ensure you are maximizing your fiber intake.”

Stress is also a factor with IBS. Most people with IBS find that their symptoms are more intense during periods of increased stress, such as during finals week or when starting a new job. However, while stress may aggravate symptoms, it doesn’t cause them.

“There is evidence that stress management helps to relieve symptoms in some IBS sufferers. There are both positive and negative stressors in our life,” Dr. Joseph said. “Learning what those stressors are, then finding a way to manage the stress through exercise, journaling, reading or other forms of relaxation, may help reduce symptoms.”

Other ways to reduce the discomfort of IBS include drinking plenty of water, getting plenty of exercise to keep endorphins flowing and avoiding caffeine. If these recommendations do not work, talk with your physician about other options, such as fiber supplements, anti-diarrheal medicines or prescription medication.

“Just keep in mind that when you continue to eat foods your body reacts negatively to, it will continue to lead to more trouble, such as anxiety,” Dr. Joseph said. “The cycle will continue until you identify the problem foods and make changes in your routine.”

A proper diagnosis of IBS is based on a six-month snapshot of a patient’s symptoms and how frequently they appear. Dr. Joseph recommends keeping a detailed food diary that includes when and how often you experience symptoms. This will help you recognize links between the foods you eat and symptoms you’re experiencing.


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