Irritable Bowel Syndrome

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, also known as IBS, is a disorder that affects the colon and intestinal tract. IBS is considered a chronic condition requiring proper management over the person’s lifetime.

The causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome are still not completely known. An array of factors can be considered. The intestinal walls contain muscle layers that contract and relax as food travels from the stomach through the intestinal tract. If a person has Irritable Bowel Syndrome, those contractions may be strong and last much longer, resulting in bloating, gas and possibly diarrhea. The opposite can occur when significantly weaker intestinal contractions slow food down and leading to constipation.

What are the Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Symptoms can be triggered due to stress, specific foods or other medical issues.

Symptoms include

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Constant and sometimes painful gas
  • Constipation
  • Bowel movement urgency

Irritable Bowel Syndrome Causes

Experts aren’t sure exactly what causes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) but they think that there is a range of factors involved.

Firstly, it’s thought that the signals between the brain and the gut which control digestion may not be working properly. It’s also possible that there are problems with the motility of the gut; if food passes too slowly through the intestines it could cause constipation, and if it moves too quickly and causes spasms, there could be pain and diarrhea.

There’s also a possibility that people with IBS have very sensitive nerves in the gut, causing pain when gas and stools move through the intestines. Alternatively, it could be that pain signals are processed differently in the brains of people with IBS.

Sometimes bacterial infections in the gut can trigger IBS, but it isn’t clear why some people may develop IBS and others do not. Similarly, it could be that those with IBS have an overgrowth of certain types of bacteria in the gut, which could cause excess gas and affect normal digestion.

There’s also a link between mental health and IBS; many people with the condition also suffer from conditions like panic disorder, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. They also often have abnormal brain chemistry which could affect nerve signals to the gut. However, it isn’t clear if IBS causes mental health problems, or if IBS is a physical manifestation of mental health problems, or if the changes in brain chemistry are responsible for both IBS and mental health conditions.

Sometimes symptoms of IBS are triggered by certain foods, which suggests that food sensitivity could also be to blame for the condition.

How is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Treated?

For most people, Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms can be alleviated through dietary and lifestyle changes combined with a proper treatment plan from their healthcare provider. Two of the most important dietary changes that healthcare providers can recommend will be to drink plenty of water, and to increase the fiber in the diet. Avoidance of high-fat foods is also encouraged. Some natural health practitioners will encourage adding pro-biotic supplements and pro-biotic foods such as yogurt into the diet. Doctors will often refer patients to dieticians and nutritional specialists to have them provide direction and dietary advice.

If you believe you have been experiencing any symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, it is vital that you see your doctor as soon as possible.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome Prevention

It isn’t possible to completely prevent IBS, but the condition can, in many cases, be managed with minimal flare-ups of symptoms by making simple lifestyle changes.

Modifying diet is a major one. People with IBS can try to avoid constipation and diarrhea by adjusting the amount of soluble and insoluble fiber they eat. To reduce constipation, eat more soluble fiber such as oats, barley, fruits and root vegetables. To reduce diarrhea, eat more insoluble fiber such as whole grain bread, cereals, nuts, and seeds.

You could also adopt the low FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) diet. This means avoiding certain foods which begin to ferment quickly in the gut and make you more susceptible to painful gas and bloating.

It can also help to:

  • Eat slowly
  • Eat small meals regularly
  • Reduce caffeine consumption
  • Drink 8 to 12 cups of fluid each day
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners which can cause diarrhea
  • Do more exercise to relieve symptoms
  • Reduce stress.
Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2016
Last Updated:
March 14, 2018