Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition of mystery. While it is fairly common, affecting 11 percent of people globally, the cause of the disease isn’t known. It affects women twice as often as men, and affects those under the age of 50 more than those over 50.
IBS is a functional disorder, meaning that there is no test for it, and a diagnosis comes after all other organic or mechanical reasons for the symptoms have been ruled out.
While there is no known cause for IBS, theories include a motility disorder of the muscles in the gastrointestinal tract, bowel gut hypersensitivity, an alteration in the quantity or quality of microbiomes that live in the colon, or a sensitivity to dairy. Genetics do not appear to be a cause, and it’s possible that several factors play a part in the condition.
Someone who is predisposed to gastroenteritis (an inflammation of the lining of the intestines that’s caused by a virus, bacteria or parasite) may be more prone to develop IBS.
Two Categories of IBS Symptoms
IBS affects the large intestine, causing cramping and bloating. Some people with IBS have constipation, or IBS/C. Others have diarrhea, or IBS/D. Some alternate between constipation and diarrhea, and some aspects of treatment will vary depending on the version of IBS.
While IBS is frustrating because it is not easy to determine the cause — and can be painful and inconvenient — the discomfort does not harm the intestines.
To diagnose IBS, doctors perform a colonoscopy and blood work to rule out other causes. They then use the Rome criteria to determine the recurrence of pain over several months, and any changes in bowel frequency or appearance, and if pain decreases upon defecation.
Treating or Preventing IBS
If a person has IBS, or feels at higher risk for developing IBS, treatment and preventive measures are similar.
Maintain a healthy IBS diet: One of the first lines of defense is to start a gluten-free diet. Gluten is a protein found in wheat that can cause irritation and illness in those who have a sensitivity to it, or to those who have Celiac disease. Other dietary tips include:
Decrease the ingestion of lactose, which is found in dairy
Increase soluble fiber, particularly Psyllium, which is often used in laxatives
Decrease the use of fructose, which is found in fruits and honey
Limit the use of sweeteners
Exercise daily: A study showed that physical activity lessened current IBS symptoms and that over time, those who exercised noted their symptoms lessened overall.
Reduce stress: While stress doesn’t cause IBS, having IBS is stressful and can exacerbate the symptoms.
Take medication for IBS as prescribed: Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe antispasmodics for diarrhea and a trial of probiotics or laxatives for constipation. Your doctor also may prescribe antidepressants to relieve overall symptoms.
IBS is a multifactorial condition, meaning there’s not one single thing we can point out as a cause. That also means there’s not one single thing we can point out as a cure or as a preventive measure. However, by making lifestyle changes that incorporate a healthy diet, decrease stress and medications as prescribed, you can make strides to avoid IBS symptoms.
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