Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is more common than one might think. With roughly 10 to 15% of people worldwide dealing with some form of IBS, and 40% of those dealing with only mild cases, it’s possible you may have it and not even realize it.
Several extraneous factors can bring about a case of IBS, including poor diet, stress, and changes to your microbiome. While you may have some control over these triggers, sometimes things like stress or a bad night of sleep just happen, and you’re left playing damage control.
To help you recognize a potential case of IBS, we’ll go over some of the most common signs and symptoms you should be watching for.
Before diving into what signs and symptoms might suggest irritable bowel syndrome, it may be helpful to give an overview of what this condition is.
IBS goes by several other names: irritable colon, mucous colitis, spastic colitis, and spastic colon, to name a few. IBS is made up of several intestinal symptoms that often occur together.
IBS is broken down into three different types, depending on your symptoms:
Each person may be affected differently, with some symptoms being more prevalent than others. For it to be considered IBS, you must suffer from the following symptoms for at least three days per month, for at least three months.
Most people who suffer from IBS will have lower abdominal pain or cramping, though upper abdominal pain may also occur. The pain associated with IBS will often lessen after a bowel movement.
There are several routes you can take to relieve symptoms of stomach cramping and pain:
If these methods don’t help with the pain or cramping associated with IBS, consider speaking with a gastroenterologist about pursuing underlying causes.
IBS often leads to increased gas production in your gut, which can then lead to uncomfortable bloating. Doctors aren’t quite sure what causes excess gas in IBS patients, though they have their theories.
Some doctors think IBS may cause disruptions in the bacteria in your gut, which leads to excess gas. Another theory doctors have is that people’s digestive systems with IBS are over sensitive and not able to tolerate and transport gas as well as people with a healthy digestive system.
There are plenty of things you can try to avoid or help alleviate excess gas and bloating:
While occasional bloating and gas aren’t telltale signs of IBS, if they’re a regular occurrence for you, in combination with some of the other signs and symptoms listed here, you might want to bring it up at your next doctor's appointment.
Additionally, if cutting out dairy and gluten doesnn’t help, there may be an underlying cause that you and your doctor will need to work together to discover and treat for improved symptoms.
Constipation is another common symptom of IBS. Constipation means that bowel movements are difficult or happen infrequently.
Constipation associated with IBS includes abdominal pain that ceases after a bowel movement. This is in contrast to functional constipation, which is chronic constipation not associated with a disease that is usually painless.
Another characteristic of constipation as a result of IBS is a feeling of incomplete bowel movement, known as tenesmus, which often leads to needless straining.
Some ways to help ease constipation include:
While constipation doesn’t always mean you have an underlying medical issue, if it becomes a regular problem, you should consider speaking with your doctor about it.
Right behind constipation, diarrhea is another common symptom of IBS, affecting around one-third of those diagnosed.
Diarrhea is loose stools that happen at least three times a day. It can either be acute, lasting as short as a day or two, or chronic, which lasts at least four weeks. If you’ve been experiencing diarrhea on a regular basis, it may indicate you have IBS-D.
Surprisingly, treating diarrhea is quite similar to treating constipation:
Trying some of the above methods may help to alleviate an acute case of diarrhea. If it continues for more than two days, it may be wise to reach out to a doctor for further advice.
Some people deal with alternating constipation and diarrhea, which is categorized as IBS-M (mixed).
IBS-M is often more severe than other forms of IBS, with symptoms coming on much more frequently.
If you find that both diarrhea and constipation often occur, it’s advised that you don’t attempt to treat yourself, as medications for one symptom can make the other worse.
Food sensitivities or intolerances are another common sign of IBS. Fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols (FODMAPs), in particular, often triggers other IBS symptoms such as constipation or diarrhea.
The reason foods such as FODMAPs cause issues for many people is due to their potential to cause inflammation and irritation in the gut. They also increase the amount of water and bacteria in the gut which can cause fermentation to occur, leading to excess gas.
Foods that often cause issues with people with IBS include:
Note before eliminating specific foods from your diet, it’s always best to speak with your doctor first. At WeTheTrillions, we work with clinicians to ensure our customers not only get meals that will help alleviate their symptoms, but that they are also receiving food that will continue to help them achieve their daily health goals.
People with IBS also frequently suffer from either anxiety or depression, though doctors are unsure which happens first, they do know that the nerve connecting the brain and the gut is important. Stress in the mind can alter the microbiome in the gut and exhibit itself in tummy trouble, and likewise an imbalance in the gut can cause an imbalance in the chemicals in the brain. Additionally, theories include that the stress of living with IBS may make people more prone to these mental disorders.
From the outside, some people who deal with the symptoms of IBS may mistakenly come off as depressed, due to them being avoidant of social situations, in fear of a flare-up.
Interestingly, antidepressants are sometimes prescribed as a means to treat IBS, even in patients who aren’t showing any other signs of depression or anxiety. However, some studies show antidepressants increase symptoms of constipation, diarrhea and sleep problems. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine recommends a high-fiber, low-fat diet as a safer mood stabilizing option. Folate in particular, a b vitamin found in broccoli, spinach, asparagus, and many other vegetables, as well as in beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas, plays a role in manufacturing serotonin which helps with mood stability.
In addition to anxiety and depression, people who suffer from IBS may also feel overly stressed. This can be a vicious cycle, where stress can actually exacerbate the condition, leading to increased IBS symptoms.
Many patients find it helpful to employ de-stressing or relaxation techniques such as meditation, exercise, and focused breathing to help reduce the severity of IBS symptoms.
It’s not uncommon for people with IBS to deal with fatigue and/or difficulty sleeping. At this time, the medical community doesn’t understand why this occurs.
In addition to fatigue, insomnia may in some ways be related to IBS, with patients having issues either falling asleep, waking up throughout the night, or not feeling well-rested upon waking. Research sites the disturbance in people with IBS as being related to the lower production of serotonin in the gut, among other things, which the body needs to work with melatonin and signal sleep.
Some things you can try to beat fatigue and improve your sleep include:
While several of the above in combination may indicate that you have IBS, a single sign or symptom doesn’t necessarily indicate an underlying problem.
Excessive bloating and gas can often result from eating certain foods such as beans, cruciferous vegetables, and dairy.
Fatigue and stress can be signs that you are overworking yourself, or not getting enough sleep. Anxiety and depression can also stem from being overworked, though these are often much more complicated.
In any case, if you suspect you have a problem related to these symptoms, you should speak with your doctor to get a diagnosis. While there is no cure for IBS currently, there are plenty of options available to help you properly manage symptoms and tackle their root causes so you can reach your peak health.