Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Nearly 15 percent of men and women in the United States are affected by Irritable Bowel Syndome. Irritable bowel syndrome is one of the most common issues that occur in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The condition is characterized not only by irritability to normal stimuli due to extra sensitive bowel muscles, but also by dysfunctional nerves located in the bowel tissue, along the spinal cord and in the brain that prevent certain GI organs from acting as they should. Sometimes, muscles in the colon will contract too much while the patient eats, causing discomfort, cramps or diarrhea after a meal. Other times, nerves in the bowel might be extra sensitive, causing more pain than is expected whenever something causes the bowel muscles to stretch. Patients with IBS often will experience periods of constipation alternating with diarrhea. It is important to be evaluated for this disorder, as it can present similarly to other GI conditions, which if left untreated could result in long term problems.
Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Since IBS is a syndrome—not a disease—it is more accurately described as a set of symptoms experienced by the patient that indicate functional problems in the bowel. Some common complaints include general abdominal pain associated with cramps, bloating, diarrhea and gas. Individuals affected by irritable bowel syndrome may or may not also experience constipation at times. Some patients also report seeing a white-colored mucous in their stool and feeling as if their bowel movements are unfinished. Although irritable bowel syndrome does not occur in one sex more than in another, women might experience more severe symptoms during their menstrual periods.
Getting Diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Even though IBS can be a painful burden at times, it is not as serious as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) because it does not change the colon in any way. The large intestine and all other parts of the gastrointestinal tract usually remain stable and do not cause complications or other health problems. Your doctor might diagnose you with irritable bowel syndrome after performing certain tests on you, such as:
- Colonoscopy—during which a patient is sedated to allow a long, flexible tube to be inserted inside the colon via the anus. At the end of the tube, there is an imaging sensor and a light that allow the doctors to view the inside of the patient’s colon on a TV monitor or computer.
- Sigmoidoscopy—during which a similar test to colonoscopy is performed on just the lowest part of the colon.
- Blood work – Your physician may order certain blood tests to exclude common conditions such as celiac disease, and may evaluate for vitamin deficiencies, which can be signs of more serious disease such as IBD/Crohn’s disease.
- Breath testing – Some specialized centers can offer breath testing to help diagnose IBS versus other conditions such as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). This test is only done in very specialized centers, you should contact one of our specialists to find out if this test is offered near you.
A Healthy Irritable Bowel Syndrome Diet
Irritable Bowel Syndrome has no known cure, but one of our medical experts can help you to relieve the condition’s symptoms. There are some medications available to help, such as laxatives to relieve constipation or antispasmodics to control muscle contractions—but usually, patients need to put out an effort to change their diet and lifestyles to achieve relief. For example, eating foods that are high in fat, such as fast food or other highly processed packaged foods, is known to worsen the symptoms of IBS. Affected individuals should also avoid dairy products, chocolate, caffeinated beverages, carbonated beverages, sugar free products (especially chewing gum) and alcohol. Mostly, substances that tend to lead to an irritable bowel varies from person to person—so it’s important to keep track of what you’re eating and discuss the possible irritants with your medical doctor. Certain foods are oftentimes associated with different symptoms, so the more you know about your own body’s reactions, the better you can work to avoid discomfort.
There are, on the other hand, foods that you can eat that might reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome—but how effective these items will be also depends on the individual. Some patients find that products high in fiber can soften stool and reduce constipation, while others who might have more sensitive nerves in their bowel tissue find that softer stool and more frequent bowel movements just causes more discomfort and abdominal pain. Foods high in fiber include whole-grain bread, kidney beans, lima beans, raw vegetables, fruits and many cereals available in your local grocery store. There are also fiber pills and fiber powders that a person can either swallow whole or mix into a glass of water. Please note that adding more fiber to your diet can also cause symptoms such as an increase in gas, which may or may not worsen the symptoms already associated with IBS.
Reviewed 12/12/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014