Imagine having a medical condition with no known cause and no cure, yet it affects your every waking moment. Unfortunately, for individuals who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, it’s all they know. During April, the medical community promotes IBS Awareness Month, as this condition is often undiagnosed. Fewer than 50% of those affected seek medical care. It can plague people for years without knowing how to handle it. Those who’ve heard of IBS might think of it as having to use the bathroom often, but there’s a lot more to this illness.
More Common Than You Think
There’s a high likelihood that someone you know struggles with IBS, as it affects between 25 and 45 million Americans and an estimated 10-15% worldwide. Women are twice as likely to have IBS than men. Yet, while it’s typically present in adults, children can also experience its troubling symptoms. You might compare Irritable Bowel Syndrome to many other medical conditions with varying symptoms and highly unpredictable intensity and duration. For example, individuals may go years between episodes. Or, it can be so persistent that it literally affects every part of their day.
IBS Awareness Month provides the opportunity to learn more about this relentless condition. Take the time to learn what doctors know, how best to manage symptoms, and how to improve the quality of life despite Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
How Do You Get Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Having to go to the bathroom may sound like something easily addressed with a prescription from a doctor or a change in diet. However, Irritable Bowel Syndrome is far more complex and is classified by a series of symptoms that may come and go. IBS isn’t fully understood by medical professionals, but recorded observations are helping experts slowly determine how and why this condition develops.
- IBS symptoms may be triggered by hormonal changes, which explains why nearly 70% of those with the condition are women.
- There’s an undetermined link between the gut and brain in those with IBS. It’s thought that the brain notices contractions in the gut more often than those without it.
- Colon sensitivity may also play a role, along with serotonin levels that are present within the digestive system.
- Individuals with Irritable Bowel Syndrome may have an immune system that responds differently to stress and infection.
Even though it’s unclear what triggers IBS in some and not others, it’s considered to be a medical condition that requires a diagnosis from a physician. Experts define it as a group of symptoms that have been present for a minimum of six months and occurring at least three times per month during the past three months.
IBS Symptoms Can Vary
While specific symptoms may vary from person to person, a true IBS diagnosis finds abdominal discomfort is a prerequisite and the symptoms are typically alleviated with a bowel movement. Doctors recommend keeping a journal of your symptoms if you suspect you have IBS. Recognizing any patterns can greatly aid in an accurate diagnosis.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is accurately named, as the condition is akin to having an upset digestive tract. Think back to the last time you ate something that “didn’t agree with you” to understand what IBS sufferers experience daily. Those with more severe symptoms find they must allow themselves extra time when leaving the house. They also travel along certain routes with known bathroom facilities.
9 Signs That You May Have IBS
One of the things that makes IBS so difficult to study is that the triggers and symptoms vary greatly from one person to the next. However, doctors have determined nine different signs that are fairly consistent across individuals with this illness.
- Nearly 70% of those with IBS note that they have specific food intolerances. Many of them actively work to avoid certain items that they know will trigger their symptoms.
- Diarrhea is a very common condition with IBS. The frequent need to have a bowel movement can regularly affect work and social life.
- Conversely, constipation can also affect those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The irregularity of digestive tract functions can essentially send confusing signals to the brain.
- For an individual to receive an IBS diagnosis, pain and abdominal cramping must be present.
- Bowel movements, whether they are from diarrhea or constipation, can change often and take on various consistencies and colors.
- Eighty-three percent of individuals with IBS experience bloating and gas.
- Despite the fact that bowel movements typically take place during the day, those with IBS also experience difficulty sleeping and are often fatigued.
- Although symptoms can vary, most people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome notice an alternating pattern between constipation and diarrhea. This makes IBS even more difficult to manage.
- More than two-thirds of IBS patients experience a mood disorder, including depression or anxiety that is likely related to the social implications of their illness.
At first glance, it might seem that IBS means that you no longer have control over your life. But with time and attention given to specific symptoms, sufferers can learn to live with it. Consider some of the ways people have been able to successfully manage their IBS.
Living with Your Symptoms
Although IBS can be an irregular condition that often keeps people on their toes, there are some constants that can be tracked over time along with methods for dealing with your symptoms. One of the top recommendations from physicians is to keep a daily food journal to catalog your meals. This allows you to look back during a specific IBS flare-up and observe any patterns or clues to your food triggers.
One of the most difficult aspects of IBS is the embarrassment that comes along with frequent bathroom visits. Many suggest talking with friends, family, and co-workers (if appropriate) about your condition. This support system can be crucial. Often, individuals with IBS find that people understand and want to help any way they can. This concept of talking with others about your IBS goes hand in hand with reducing stress. Physicians often see a strong link between stress and IBS flare-ups. Therefore, implementing stress-relieving techniques into your daily life can go a long way.
Instead of falling victim to symptoms and avoiding social situations due to potential discomfort, there are tips that can help those suffering with IBS. For example, when visiting a new place, make sure you know where the restroom is in advance, particularly in public places like a seated venue. Choose a location that provides easy access to facilities. Check out menus to restaurants ahead of time as dining out can be especially stressful. This will ensure your meal selections won’t trigger symptoms.
Foods to Avoid
Depending on your IBS symptoms, constipation or diarrhea, paying attention to your diet can make a huge difference. Foods to avoid when dealing with constipation include:
- Dairy products, particularly cheese
- Alcohol, coffee, and carbonated beverages
- Highly processed foods like chips or cookies
- Items that are high in protein
- Refined grains including cereal or bread
Staying hydrated is important when constipated, so part of your IBS treatment plan should include drinking plenty of water. Increase your intake of fiber, and for extra support, drink prune juice to help with more stubborn symptoms.
Dealing with frequent diarrhea that’s related to IBS is just as frustrating. Here are specific diet modifications that individuals should consider.
- Eat smaller portions and snacks instead of three large meals per day.
- Incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into all meals instead of high-fat items.
- Drink water before or after you eat and stay away from alcohol, caffeine, or beverages that are high in sugar.
- Pay attention to how your body reacts to both wheat and dairy to help determine any underlying intolerance affecting your IBS.
Hope for IBS Sufferers
Learning that you have IBS may initially be disheartening since there currently is no cure for the condition. But this doesn’t mean that you need to stay tied to a bathroom every day. By working closely with your physician or dietician, you can learn to recognize your common IBS triggers. You can develop a plan around how to handle your symptoms and build a support system that will encourage you to maintain a positive attitude. If you or someone you love is experiencing unusual symptoms and think it could be IBS, visit your doctor to start on the path toward a more balanced and joyful life.
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