First things first: do you know the difference between a sensitive stomach and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)? We talked previously about the difference between the two, so you can review our article on sensitive stomachs here. Additionally, if you happen to have switched to a gluten-free diet because you believe you have celiac disease, it’s possible you actually have IBS, which is much more common than celiac disease, though the two have highly similar symptoms. Do speak to a health professional to confirm what condition you actually have.
If you know that what you have is indeed IBS, then we’ll be discussing that in more detail today. If you are uncertain, remember you can always inquire with your doctor, who can review your symptoms and, if necessary, run tests to confirm.
What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
IBS is a chronic condition where the large intestine becomes hypersensitive and has trouble with proper digestion and passing of food. The muscles in the colon either constrict too weakly or too strongly, leading to constipation or diarrhea. Other factors can involve chemicals and IBS can be inconvenient, uncomfortable and unpleasant, but thankfully does not put you at higher risk for colon cancer. This condition is rarely serious, and can be managed and improved through a combination of medication, counseling and stress management, and dietary adjustments.
If you do have IBS, do you have IBS-C where you are often constipated, or IBS-D, where you often experience diarrhea? IBS- C is more prevalent between the two, and women are more prone to IBS than men in general. IBS is also more common in people under 45.
There is a version of IBS where you go through alternating constipation and diarrhea, called IBS-M (M is for mixed). The last type of IBS is unsubtyped IBS or IBS-U, which includes anyone with IBS who does not fit clearly into the other three categories.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome Symptoms
To officially be diagnosed with IBS, you must have IBS symptoms at least 3 days a month for 3-6 consecutive months. Additionally, you should find that your stool is softer or harder when you have IBS-related stomach pain. When you are experiencing discomfort, it is more likely that you are having more or less bowel movements than usual. Finally, you should find that your pain and discomfort goes away after a bowel movement. IBS symptoms can flare up in varying degrees depending on diet, lifestyle, illness or stress. Other than the qualifying symptoms listed above, it is also important to note that IBS is different for every person, but more common symptoms include:
Bloating and gassiness
Loss of appetite
Mucus in stool
3 Tips to Manage IBS
IBS is a chronic condition, and you can always make adjustments in your lifestyle and diet along with taking medication to improve the intensity and frequency of your IBS symptoms.
You can learn a lot about how IBS specifically affects you by keeping a food journal – which will help you track how your body reacts to certain food and drinks. Try removing a suspected food or drink from your diet, and if you do not find your IBS symptoms improving, you can assume it is safe. If you try this, it would be helpful to also track whether you begin, end or change dosage on any regular medications or if you are taking any temporary medications.
Also make note of your stress levels each day. If you know that you react more to stress than to food (though they can influence each other), you can change your daily tracking to focus on your emotional stress levels and what is causing you anxiety or distress. You can try different types of exercise for the purpose of stress management. Try going for walks alone, then with a friend, or a group class, or yoga or meditation and make note of whether one is more helpful for stress relief than another.
Try the obvious first. Since there are common triggers and common aids for digestion issues, you can start by eliminating the triggers and adding the aids. Since it’s proven to help healthy digestion, consume more fiber from dark leafy greens, fruit, and 100% whole grain. Avoid or limit common irritants such as dairy, caffeine (including soft drinks), smoking and alcohol.
We hope that this IBS overview and our tips above will help you towards better digestion. Although IBS is common and rarely serious, be sure to talk to your doctor if you experience extreme weight loss, increasing stomach pain at night, or rectal bleeding.