While virtually everyone experiences abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas, and nausea from time to time, these common gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are a recurrent and often highly unpredictable problem for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Up to 45 million people in the United States have IBS, a functional GI disorder that occurs when your brain, nervous system, and digestive tract don’t work together as they should. As a leading cause of absenteeism from work, IBS is just as disruptive as it is common.
Whether you’ve been recently diagnosed with the disorder or you’ve long suspected it’s the culprit behind your chronic indigestion, here’s what you need to know about what causes IBS and what you can do to control it.
Chronic abdominal discomfort accompanied by changes in bowel habits (constipation, diarrhea, or both) are the main diagnostic criteria for IBS, as well as its hallmark symptoms.
Fundamentally driven by a disconnect between your brain, nervous system, and GI tract (small and large intestines), IBS may affect how your digestive muscles contract, or it may cause the nerves that control your digestive tract to overreact to normal digestive processes.
Intestinal muscle contractions that are stronger or last longer than normal can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea, while abnormally weak contractions can slow the digestive process and lead to constipation.
When a disconnect between your brain and the nerves in your digestive tract makes your gut more sensitive, you may experience intense pain when your abdomen is stretched with gas and stool, or you may experience an unusual amount of discomfort even with a normal amount of gas or stool.
IBS symptoms may be the result of disruption between your brain and your gut, but what causes this disruption in the first place? While researchers don’t know the exact answer to that question, they believe certain factors may play a role in the development of the disorder.
Genetic predisposition is one such factor; you’re more likely to develop IBS if it runs in your family. Ongoing digestive issues from food intolerances and sensitivities can also contribute to the development of IBS, as can bacterial overgrowth, or a surplus of intestinal bacteria.
Even a substantial change in the type of bacteria that reside in your gut may play a role in the development of IBS — a chronically imbalanced gut microbiota (more bad bacteria than good bacteria) can interfere with digestion as well as bowel function.
For some people with IBS, a severe inflammatory infection like gastroenteritis is enough to trigger the onset of chronic symptoms. For others, stressful life events, depression, or anxiety appear to precipitate the disorder. For many people, there are no obvious triggering factors.
IBS treatment solutions
As a highly individual disorder that has many potential causes, triggers, and symptoms, IBS also has a variety of effective treatment solutions, ranging from diet and lifestyle changes to stress management, probiotics, and medication.
While it’s important to recognize that not all IBS treatment solutions works for everyone, many people with mild to moderate IBS can control the disorder and prevent symptoms by avoiding trigger foods, keeping stress at bay, getting enough sleep, and getting regular exercise.
To help you identify your specific dietary triggers, you may be asked to follow a low-FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) diet.
This special IBS diet eliminates foods that are rich in FODMAPs, or chains of carbohydrates that are more likely to produce intestinal gas, then gradually reintroduces them to determine the specific foods that are problematic for you.
Whether you follow a low-FODMAP diet or not, keeping a food journal can help you pinpoint your trigger foods with more certainty. Making smaller meals, eating slowly, and chewing food thoroughly can also be helpful.
A holistic approach to IBS