You’re out to lunch with friends and are finishing up a delicious meal. Suddenly, you feel a sharp stab of pain.
Uh oh, not again.
It’s not the first time this has happened. In fact, this is something you’ve been dealing with for the past 5 years.
That dreaded IBS rears its ugly head again.
What is IBS, and how is it treated? April is IBS awareness month, and in this article we’ll shed some light on things you can do to get involved.
Who discovered IBS?
The complaint of an upset stomach is nothing new. In 1892, medical records unveiled what Osler describes as a slimy, gritty stomach disorder. His patients reported episodes of depression, along with stomach pains similar to colic.
Fast forward to 1929. Jordan and Kiefer finalized the term “irritable colon” when used to describe abdominal disturbances in 30% of their outpatients (2).
Irritable bowel syndrome is considered a functional gastrointestinal disorder. It’s believed there is a miscommunication between the gut and brain, and while these issues don’t increase your risks of colon cancer, they can keep you from living fully and abundantly.
Recent statistics show that roughly 10% – 15% of the worldwide population have been diagnosed with IBS (1). In the US, that’s about 45 million people. This doesn’t include those who may show symptoms but don’t receive medical attention.
Doctors who specialize in abdominal issues (known as gastroenterologists) confirm that IBS is the most common digestive issue they see, with severity ranging from mild to severe.
3 Types of IBS
There are three different types of irritable bowel syndrome (4):
IBS-C: Irritable bowel syndrome with constipation. This is when you have to strain and push to pass stool. Stools can be hard and lumpy.
IBS-D: Irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea. This is when stools are watery, loose, and require very little effort to pass.
IBS-M: This is the result of mixed bowel habits. You can have constipation and have loose, watery bowel movements within the same 24 hour period.
Who does IBS affect? It can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. Most people who are diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome are under the age of 50. Children can become diagnosed with it as well (5).
If you’re wondering what the causes of IBS are, you’re not alone. Also called irritable colon or spastic colon, irritable bowel syndrome is a complex issue with no straight answer.
Research does tell us that in cases of IBS, the muscles throughout the digestive tract will spasm. Some possible reasons could be hyper-sensitive nerves, muscle dysfunction in the gut, or faulty communication between the gut-brain axis (4).
For some, it could be an issue of food moving through your digestive system too quickly or too slowly. For others, it can be food intolerance, allergy, or bacterial infection. And for others, stress or trauma can cause symptoms to flare up.
There is some research that even suggests your genetic makeup may contribute to your likelihood of developing IBS (6).
The good news is, most cases of irritable bowel syndrome can be managed and treated with better diet and lifestyle choices.
While it’s always a good idea to eat more fruits or vegetables, certain ones may irritate a healing gut and should be avoided for a short time.
- Foods to avoid: Highly fibrous vegetables such as broccoli, onion, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, and beans may need to wait until your digestive tract is healed (7). If dairy or wheat bothers you, consider putting those aside as well.
- Food to include: Healing the gut cay involve foods that are high in probiotics, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, or yogurt. Along with probiotics, slowly adding fiber like oats and fruit can help bulk up loose stools and or evn softening hard stools by holding on to water.
Low FODMAP diet
Certain carbohydrates can be hard to digest. These carbs, called FODMAPs, can trigger IBS symptoms. In addition to the above list of foods to avoid, your doctor or dietician may recommend limiting canned fruits, mushrooms, rye, honey, and artificial sweeteners (8).
Note: Skipping meals is not recommended for those who suffer from IBS and can make symptoms worse.
Part of an IBS diet and lifestyle strategy may involve supplementing with herbs or other natural remedies.
- Herbals: The leaves, stems, flowers and roots of certain plants can be used to help calm your digestive tract and reduce inflammation. You may have the option of powders, capsules, tablets, or tinctures. Some good choices include aloe vera, artichoke, slippery elm, glutamine, turmeric, St. John’s wort, peppermint, psyllium husk, and an Iranian herbal remedy called carmint (9).
- Stress-reduction: Stress is not something you can avoid, but how you handle it can make all the difference. Practicing stress-reducing habits like meditation, deep breathing, a gentle massage or stretching can help reduce your stress levels, which will help prevent muscle spasms (10).
- CAM: More people are turning to complementary alternative medicine to help with certain health concerns. For IBS, some have tried acupuncture, mind-body therapy, and relaxation techniques (11).
This year, both virtual and in-person communities are gathering to raise awareness about IBS. Many organizations aim to “break the stigmas” attached to ideas around those who suffer from the disorder (3).
Taking a socially taboo subject and making people feel safe to talk about their struggles can help healthcare providers and others gain a better understanding of how to address IBS, as well as encourage others to take the necessary steps to improve their health.
Around 45 million Americans walk around with abdominal discomfort, pain, and abnormal bathroom habits.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is an incredibly common digestive disorder that carries a mysterious origin. Theories around what possibly causes it include sensitive nerve endings, muscle spasms, and a malfunction of the gut-brain axis.
There are ways to help alleviate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Adding fiber slowly over time, probiotics, and avoiding cruciferous vegetables, dairy and gluten can help start the healing journey. There are also herbs and complementary methods that many use to find relief.
If you or someone you know struggles with IBS, there is hope. Bringing misconceptions out into the open, discussing treatments, and encouraging healthier choices are the building blocks to a healthier digestive tract, now and in the future.
References & Disclaimer
✝✝This noted statement is based on independent research and is not necessarily the opinion of the author