Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) refers to a collection of symptoms that affect the function of the colon and/or large intestine, causing a person’s bowel to be extra sensitive. IBS is a chronic condition affecting up to 25% of women in the United States. Chronic IBS symptoms in women typically begin to occur around age 20. Though more than 10% of all physician office visits are a result of symptoms of IBS, many problems may go undiagnosed as the disorder is one many are uncomfortable discussing.
It’s important to understand that IBS can often be treated with dietary changes and supplements, and, in certain cases, medication. A better understanding of the digestive system and increased awareness about the disorder may reduce the uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing symptoms of IBS.
Symptoms of IBS
The signs and symptoms of IBS vary widely and may range from mild to severe, even disabling. Because symptoms may be present with other diseases, they should be discussed with a clinician for proper diagnosis and treatment. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- Increased gas (flatulence)
- Diarrhea or constipation (some patients alternate between diarrhea and constipation)
- Mucous in the stool
Causes of IBS
The exact cause of IBS is difficult to determine. The walls of the intestines are layered with muscles that contract and relax as they move food through the digestive system. IBS may cause these contractions to be harder and last longer than normal, forcing food through the intestines more quickly and causing symptoms of gas, bloating, and diarrhea. Some research indicates IBS might be linked to the central nervous system. Many women find that symptoms are worse during their menstrual periods. Stress may also aggravate symptoms of IBS.
Dairy, chocolate, and alcohol may trigger symptoms in some patients. The link between food intolerance and IBS is not well established however, and many researchers think the actual process of eating may be a trigger in itself, as chewing stimulates the colon.
Treatment and Prevention
Because the precise cause of IBS is unclear, prevention is key. In many cases, dietary changes alone may significantly improve bowel function. Keeping a food diary can benefit anyone who suffers from even occasional digestive discomfort. Exercising regularly, increasing fiber intake, and eating at the same time every day helps to regulate bowel function. Taking small, frequent meals, and chewing food thoroughly may also reduce occurrences.
Certain dietary supplements may help, too. Probiotics work by increasing the number of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract and may reduce symptoms of IBS. Acid supplements and digestive enzymes, which break down food for digestion, can also be a major benefit for IBS sufferers.
Medications for the treatment of IBS are available, but focus mainly on symptomatic relief. In other words, no “cure” is available, but certain medications may help IBS sufferers live more normal lives. Fiber supplements, anti-diarrheal medications, and stool softeners may be recommended. Until recently, the prescription medication Zelnorm (tegaserod) was marketed for IBS with constipation, but it was recently recalled due to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. A new drug, Amitiza, is currently being marketed for chronic constipation and may be of some benefit to IBS patients.
If you suffer from symptoms of IBS, a clinician can help identify a treatment plan that fits your needs.
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer and a Certified Pharmacy Technician at Innovative Pharmacy Solutions. She holds a BA in Psychology with a minor in English from the University of Central Oklahoma. Shannon lives in Edmond with her husband and two daughters.