Did you know that April was in 1997 designated IBS Awareness month by the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD)? The purpose is to not only raise awareness about the disorder but to also show people suffering from IBS that they are not alone. The estimated prevalence worldwide is 5-10% and many people go undiagnosed. To help spread awareness, we decided to summarise basic facts about IBS that everyone should know.
What is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?
IBS belongs to a larger group of diseases of the gastrointestinal tract which are called functional gastrointestinal diseases. Although the disease is so common, very little is known about why some people are affected and others are not. The symptoms also differ from person to person – both in their character and severity. Typical symptoms of IBS are abdominal pain combined with irregular gastrointestinal function with either diarrhea, constipation, or alternation between these. Although IBS is a harmless disease, it can have a strong negative impact on the everyday life of those affected.
What causes IBS?
The knowledge about IBS is incomplete. It has long been known that psychological factors, for example, worry, anxiety, and stress can cause the symptoms to develop or worsen. IBS has therefore previously been mistakenly perceived as a psychosomatic condition. However, recent research has provided new insights into possible physiological explanations, which has also given hope for new treatment methods. It is now clear that there is a connection between the diversity of the gut microbiota and IBS. A healthy gut should contain a greater proportion of “good” bacteria to support proper digestion.
Another explanation is that the gut and the brain interact with one another through the gut-brain axis. So, if something is not right in the gut, it affects the brain and vice versa. The gut-brain axis is currently still the subject of research and the mechanism is not completely clear how it works.
How is IBS diagnosed?
A doctor can make a diagnosis based on your symptoms and their occurrence. You can get suggestions for treating your problems. Even a dietitian can help analyse the current diet and give advice on what changes could be made to relieve the symptoms. There is no test for IBS so it is often important to rule out other possible diseases with similar symptoms such as allergies or food intolerances.
Facts you should know
1. There are different types of IBS
There are 4 main types of IBS:
- IBS-C – type with constipation
- IBS-D – type with frequent diarrhea
- IBS-M – mixed type with alternating diarrhea and constipation
- IBS-U – undifferentiated as the symptoms do not fit either of the other types
It is also possible to have PI-IBS (PI=post-infectious) which does not have a regular stool pattern but is characterised by irregular bowel movements and caused by acute gastrointestinal infection. Read more to determine which type of IBS you have.
2. IBS is more common in women
IBS is slightly more common among women and usually occurs before the age of 40. It has most likely something to do with female sex hormones, particularly estrogen. That is why IBS seems to be less common in pregnant women or women with menopause since the estrogen levels are generally lower. Learn more about the possible mechanisms from our post Why is IBS more common in women?
3. Stress worsens IBS symptoms
For some people, stress worsens IBS symptoms and that is why it is important to keep stress at a low level, which is often easier said than done. Some tips to reduce stress include:
- Introduce regular routines that you can follow – it is especially important during a stressful period in your life
- Eat smaller meals at regular times (every 2-3 hours)
- Move your body every day – even 30 minutes of walking will make your stomach work better and reduce stress (or if you can, give yoga a try!)
- A nap of about 20 minutes can go a long way!
- Avoid junk food and sweets
- Spend time with your loved ones
4. There is no cure for IBS, but the treatments can be managed
IBS often affects young, active people and is sometimes also called a ‘balloon stomach’. The lack of effective treatment has meant that many patients with IBS are at the mercy of trying a variety of drugs and implementing changes in their diet by experimenting with eliminating different foods.
Usually, patients try adjusting their diet to see if certain foods worsen their symptoms. By excluding these foods for a period of time, the symptoms may be alleviated. That is why it is often useful to keep a food diary to track what you eat and how you feel after.
There is some evidence that IBS symptoms could be relieved with probiotics. Learn more about treatment with probiotics on our website. Various forms of therapy such as relaxation, hypnosis and cognitive behavioural therapy have also been tried with some success because worry and stress can otherwise aggravate the symptoms.
Raise awareness about IBS
Share this post to raise awareness about this disorder and spread the message that experiencing these symptoms is more common than it seems, and in many cases, the symptoms can be managed with proper dietary changes, regular movement, and less stress. If you’d like to feel less alone and for a little comic relief, read a memoir by Joy Spencer called Chronically Me: Flushing Out My Life and Times With IBS where she describes her story with IBS.