WHAT IS IT?
IBS is a common disorder affecting the large intestine (colon) that can cause a variety of symptoms, including abdominal pain and diarrhea or constipation.
For most people, IBS is a chronic condition, although there may be times when the signs and symptoms are worse and times when they improve or even disappear completely. Signs and symptoms may vary widely from person to person and resemble those of other diseases. Among the most common are:
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- A bloated feeling
- Diarrhea or constipation, sometimes alternating bouts of each
- Mucus in the stool
Unlike ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, IBS doesn’t cause bowel tissue changes that increase your risk of serious complications.
WHAT’S THE CAUSE?
It’s not known exactly what causes IBS. A variety of factors may play a role. A person with IBS may have abnormal intestinal contractions. The contractions may be stronger and last longer, causing pain, or they may be too weak and slow the passage of food.
Abnormalities in the gastrointestinal nervous system also may play a role. Abdominal stretching from the production of gas or stool may produce greater than normal discomfort. Poorly coordinated signals between the intestines and the brain may cause the body to overreact to normal digestive events. Genes also may play a role. Studies suggest that if one family member has IBS, others may be at increased risk of the condition.
Factors that may trigger symptoms of IBS include:
- Food. Many people have more-severe symptoms when they eat certain things. A wide range of food has been implicated — chocolate, spices, fats, fruits, beans, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, milk, carbonated beverages, and alcohol.
- Stress. Most people with IBS find their signs and symptoms are worse or more frequent during periods of increased stress.
- Hormones. Because women are twice as likely as are men to have IBS, hormonal changes likely play a role. Signs and symptoms are often worse during or around menstruation.
- Other illnesses. Another illness, such as a bout of gastroenteritis (the “stomach flu”), may trigger symptoms.
WHAT TESTS TO EXPECT
There are no specific markers to definitively identify IBS, so making a diagnosis is often a process of ruling out other conditions.
Certain signs and symptoms must be present to receive a diagnosis of IBS. The most important are abdominal pain and discomfort lasting at least three days a month over the last three months. The discomfort must be associated with two or more of the following: pain relief after a bowel movement, changes in the frequency of bowel movements, or changes in the consistency of stool. Mucus in the stool may be another indication of possible IBS.
Because there isn’t a known cause, the focus of treatment is on relieving symptoms.
If your symptoms are moderate to severe, your doctor may recommend:
- Fiber supplements.
- Anti-diarrheal medications.
- Antidepressant medications.
In many cases, simple dietary or lifestyle changes may help relieve symptoms.
- Avoid problem foods. These may include alcohol, chocolate, caffeinated beverages such as coffee and sodas, dairy products, and sugar-free sweeteners such as sorbitol or mannitol. If gas is a problem, avoid “beans, cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli. Fatty foods are a problem for some people.
- Eat at regular times. This will help regulate bowel function. Small, more frequent meals also may make you feel better.
- Take care of dairy products. If you’re lactose intolerant, use an enzyme product to help break down lactose. Combining small amounts of milk products with other foods may help. In some cases, you may need to stop eating dairy foods completely.
- Try probiotics. Probiotics are “good” bacteria that normally live in your intestines. They’re found in certain foods, including some yogurts, and are available as dietary supplements.
- Drink plenty of liquids. Water is the best. Alcohol and caffeine may make diarrhea worse. Carbonated drinks can produce gas.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise helps relieve stress, and it stimulates normal contractions of your intestines.
- Find ways to reduce stress. Practice stress-relieving therapies. A warm bath, listening to music, or reading are other options.
Excerpt From: The Mayo Clinic. “Mayo Clinic A to Z Health Guide”.