Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common intestinal disorder found across the world and occurs twice as much in women than in men. As someone with friends who struggle with IBS, I thought it would be useful to share detailed insights on what IBS is, some symptoms to look out for, and how this chronic disorder can be managed over the long term.
Growing up, we’re often taught to ignore the simple stomach ache as a harmless sign of overeating, eating too quickly in one go, or of needing to go to the restroom. We’ve previously written about the possible reasons for why you might be having such intense pains, one of which may include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
What is irritable bowel syndrome?
IBS is a broad category that encompasses a range of chronic symptoms, including but not limited to abdominal pain and spontaneous changes in bowel movements without any evidence of underlying damage. Some register additional symptoms, such as noticeable bloating or even diarrhea and constipation. There are four main types of IBS to look out for:
- IBS-D: diarrhea is a common symptom
- IBS-C: constipation is a common symptom
- IBS-M: both diarrhea and constipation are common symptoms
- IBS-U: neither diarrhea nor constipation are common symptoms
As with other conditions, IBS lies on a spectrum, and more severe cases often require medication and/or regular guidance from a doctor. According to Mayo Clinic, symptoms that warrant medical intervention include the following:
- Weight loss
- Diarrhea at night
- Rectal bleeding
- Iron deficiency anemia
- Unexplained vomiting
- Difficulty swallowing
- Persistent pain that isn’t relieved by passing gas or bowel movement
Even if these extremities don’t apply to you, however, it’s always useful to consult a doctor for measures on how to keep your IBS under control. One of my close friends, in fact, struggles with spontaneous episodes of extreme bloating, which is not only uncomfortable, but also has a negative effect on her self-esteem and anxiety issues. After consulting with a doctor, she was properly diagnosed with IBS, and was prescribed medication to take during particularly bad periods.
What causes IBS?
The root of IBS is something that is still shrouded in mystery, but certain risk factors have been identified. Since the entire axis connecting the brain and the gut is infected, these factors are speculated to include matters of mental health as well.
The same friend of mine who experiences occasional bloating observes that her episodes occur more frequently in times of stress. Studies have found that IBS patients tend to have higher anxiety levels, and in two-thirds of the time, the psychiatric diagnosis of anxiety tends to come before the diagnosis of IBS. Even if you might not be a victim of IBS, one useful lesson to keep in mind is how stress can not only hamper your mental and emotional well-being, but it can also have long-term effects on your physical health that go beyond the obvious consequences of stress-eating.
Other more physical factors include infections due to bacteria and fungi or following acute bouts of gastroenteritis. Gastroenteritis refers to a form of infectious diarrhea in which the gastrointestinal tract becomes inflamed, leading to symptoms such as vomiting, abdominal pain, and even fever, among other things. Some evidence shows that episodes of gastroenteritis can result in long-term changes to the intestinal tract, predisposing one to contract IBS later on.
How can IBS be managed?
As something that doesn’t have a definite cause, IBS also doesn’t have a definite cure. Nonetheless, there are ways to keep it under control and decrease the frequency of painful episodes.
- Changing your diet: Carbohydrates, and in certain cases on intolerance, sugars like fructose and lactose, are more challenging for the small intestine to absorb. By adopting a “FODMAP diet” (i.e. a diet restricted in fermentable oligo-, di-, monosaccharides and polyols), your intestinal tract is given a lighter load, contributing to reduced IBS symptoms.
- Medication: While medication is not targeted at making IBS disappear entirely, it helps to relieve specific symptoms. Laxatives and stool-softeners are often administered for IBS-C (e.g. which features constipation), while antidiarrheals like opioids may be prescribed to deal with IBS-D (e.g. in which diarrhea is predominant). Additionally, antidepressants (specifically SSRIs) might actually be effective in killing two birds with one stone. Because they serve to boost levels of serotonin, they can indirectly help to relieve symptoms of constipation.
- Find a stress release: This is where the psychological component comes in. If stress seems to play a huge part in the intensity of your IBS symptoms, consider reaching out to licensed psychiatrists for managing anxiety. There are a whole range of options for you, ranging from mindfulness exercises to psychotherapy.
At the end of the day, while IBS manifests itself in physical pain, it’s intimately connected with your mind. IBS is a notable example of how it’s important to maintain both physical and mental health. Problems in each area can negatively reinforce the other, leading to a cycle of stress and pain. Nonetheless, don’t feel that you’re burdened with having to make lifestyle changes on your own.
If you think you might have IBS, feel free to speak with a doctor online on RingMD from wherever you are (just click the button below).
Our world-class online doctors can provide you with medical advice, and depending on where you are, they may also be able to write you a medical certificate and online prescription. You have a right to deal with your pain. We’re working to make sure everyone takes depression more seriously, and everyone gets the care they need.
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