What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) rarely talk about it. Yet research shows it affects more than 15 percent of Americans, most of them women. It is a common disorder of the intestines that leads to cramping pain, gassiness, bloating and changes in bowel habits.
Besides being painful and embarrassing, IBS can also be disabling, depending on the severity of symptoms.
IBS tends to occur more often in those with stressful and emotionally distressing lives.
These are other factors that can trigger symptoms:
Certain medicines and foods. Chocolate, milk products and caffeine are common triggers. Beans, cabbage and certain fruits, all foods that produce gas, may trigger symptoms. Fats in any form (saturated or unsaturated) can trigger symptoms. Large amounts of alcohol are a trigger.
Infections in the gastrointestinal tract
Hormonal influences. Increased estrogen seems to affect bowel activity; women's symptoms worsen during menstruation.
These are common symptoms of IBS:
Bloating and gas
Diarrhea, especially after eating or first thing in the morning; some people have alternating diarrhea and constipation
Feeling like you need to have a bowel movement after already having one
Abdominal pain and cramping that may go away after a bowel movement
Not all people with IBS experience all the symptoms. Symptoms can occur from a few times a week to once a month. IBS can also go away for months or years and suddenly return.
The symptoms may get worse when you're under stress, such as when you travel or change your daily routine. They also may get worse if you have an unhealthy diet or after you eat a big meal.
Keeping a diary of what you eat and your symptoms for a few weeks can help you determine if a food bothers you.
Diagnosis and treatment
No test screens for IBS. Instead, your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms; if they have a certain pattern over time, the doctor will know you have the condition. Your doctor may also perform tests to make sure your symptoms are not from another condition, rather than IBS.
The best way to treat IBS is to eat a healthy, high-fiber diet; avoid food that makes you feel worse; and reduce your stress. Drinking plenty of water and eating six small meals a day instead of three big ones helps others.
No medications cure IBS, but your doctor can give you medications to help relieve your symptoms. These include antispasmodic medicines to reduce painful cramping, antidiarrheals for diarrhea, and non-stimulant laxatives for constipation. Antidepressants may also reduce some symptoms. Your health care provider can determine the most appropriate treatment.