Take Control of Your IBS for a Happier Gut

Why is it that some people can eat a bowl of five-alarm chili without incident, and others with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) might spend the next several hours in abdominal agony? While experts don’t know exactly what causes IBS, one thing is certain: an IBS flair-up can literally cramp your style.

Roughly 10 to 15 percent of American adults struggle with irritable bowel syndrome, a digestive disorder affected by how your bowel (intestines) responds to the foods you eat, anxiety and other triggers. Its often debilitating symptoms disrupt patients’ everyday lives, including work and social interactions. 

Irritable bowel syndrome is a chronic, digestive disorder and is unrelated to damage caused by other diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease. With IBS, your digestive system moves more slowly or quickly than average. 

The disorder is nearly twice as common in women as men, and symptoms may be stronger during a woman’s menstrual period. The condition has historically been referred to as spastic colon, spastic bowel and nervous colon.

“It’s a health issue that has always been around, but it’s been something that people are more comfortable talking about in recent years,” notes Rosanne Danielson, MD, with Premier Gastroenterology Specialists in Troy. 

“There’s no one test that can say you have it or you don’t have it,” Dr. Danielson explains.

What Are the Symptoms of IBS?

Symptoms of IBS may come and go. You may have IBS if:

  • You experience intermittent abdominal pain, altered bowel habits, gas, bloating, and diarrhea or constipation or both.
  • You’ve had symptoms at least three times a month for the past three months.
  • Your symptoms first started at least six months ago.
  • You experience symptoms soon after eating a meal.
  • Your symptoms become worse with stress and anxiety.

If you notice blood in your stool, contact your physician for evaluation. This is not a symptom of IBS and could signal a serious health issue. 

While symptoms of IBS can be concerning and painful, IBS: 

  • Does not lead to other serious digestive diseases
  • Does not damage your gastrointestinal tract
  • Is not a life-threatening illness
  • Is not a risk factor for colon cancer

How is IBS Diagnosed?

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Symptoms can be very similar to other gastrointestinal health issues, making diagnosis difficult.

“There’s no one test that can say you have it or you don’t have it,” Dr. Danielson explains.

Your doctor typically will diagnose IBS based on a review of your medical history, symptoms and physical exam. She might also order blood tests to rule out other health problems. Based on your blood test results, she may perform more tests if you have:

  • A family history of celiac disease, colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease
  • A fever
  • Anemia
  • Bleeding from your rectum
  • Weight loss 

How is IBS Treated?

Though IBS doesn’t have a cure, your doctor can help you manage your symptoms by focusing on a combination of diet, lifestyle, stress reduction and medication therapy if needed. It may take a while to find what works for you, since no single approach works for all patients.

Certain foods or drinks  may make symptoms worse. Experts recommend avoiding:

  • Foods high in fat
  • Some milk products
  • Drinks with alcohol or caffeine
  • Drinks with large amounts of artificial sweeteners
  • Beans, cabbage and other foods that may cause gas
  • Honey and foods with high-fructose corn syrup
  • Sweeteners ending in “ol,” such as sorbitol and xylitol
  • Large meals (they can cause cramping and diarrhea)

Stress can make IBS symptoms worse. Options for managing stress include:

  • Taking part in stress reduction and relaxation therapies such as meditation
  • Getting counseling and support
  • Taking part in regular exercise such as walking or yoga
  • Reducing stressful life situations as much as possible
  • Getting enough sleep

As more research occurs, experts are gaining insight into additional options for controlling symptoms, including probiotics, dietary supplements and complementary and alternative therapies. Talk with your doctor about whether these therapies might benefit you, as well as their possible side effects.

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