Understanding IBS

Maureen Robb's picture
By Maureen Robb on March 11, 2019

Everyone experiences upsetting gut symptoms from time to time: bloating, cramping, stomach pain and diarrhea.

For many people, they seem to be precipitated—or aggravated—by certain foods or beverages.

Worst of all, the symptoms can strike without warning, even just before an important meeting or event.

Taken together, this combination of symptoms could indicate irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a chronic condition of the large intestine that affects up to 20 percent of people in the United States.

Common symptoms of IBS include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Excess gas
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Cramping
  • Mucus in the stool
  • Nausea

Some people even experience alternating diarrhea and constipation.

According to  Kevin Mercure, M.D., a gastroenterologist with Carilion Clinic, the severity of symptoms can vary widely.

“Some people have mild or occasional symptoms, and others have severe symptoms that disrupt their daily lives and cause them to miss work,” he said.

Risk Factors
Twice as many women as men have IBS, leading to the suspicion that hormones are involved. In fact, many women say their symptoms worsen when they have their periods.

IBS also occurs more often in those younger than 50 or in those who have a family history of it.

“The cause of IBS isn’t known, but certain factors are implicated,” said Dr. Mercure. They include:

  • Changes in your gut bacteria
  • Abnormalities in your digestive system
  • Infections caused by a bacteria or virus
  • Stress
  • Muscle contractions in your intestine

IBS can also be triggered by foods such as:

  • Dairy products
  • Cabbage
  • Wheat
  • Beans
  • Citrus fruits
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Caffeinated drinks

The good news is that IBS is not believed to increase the risk of colorectal cancer.

Managing IBS
IBS is a chronic condition, so Dr. Mercure recommends that patients focus on preventing episodes and controlling their symptoms.

“Some people find they can manage their IBS by reducing stress and making changes in their diet and lifestyle,” said Dr. Mercure.

“Others may need medications to help them manage the condition,” he noted.

Eating more fiber-rich foods like fruits and vegetables and drinking fewer caffeinated beverages may help.

Exercise can help your digestive system by moving food through your body.

Other recommended steps include:

If you have IBS, you may find it helps to reach out to others with the condition. You can find support online, or ask your primary care provider to recommend a local support group.