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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a digestive disorder that involves changes in the frequency or form of bowel movements and lower abdominal pain.
It is a type of functional gastrointestinal disorder characterized by cramps, bloating and bouts of diarrhea, which tend to come and go over time, and can last up to months at a time.
Researchers are still finding the exact cause of IBS, but it has been largely associated with things like diet, stress, poor sleep as well as a family history of IBS.
Women are more likely to have IBS compared to men and between 6-18% of people worldwide are affected by this condition.
It’s usually a lifelong problem, which also means there’s no cure for it. But diet and lifestyle modifications can help control the symptoms.
In today's’ article, we will discuss the most common symptoms of IBS and what you can do if you suspect you have it.
Pain and cramps in the lower abdomen are two of the main symptoms and key factors of diagnosis of IBS.
Under normal condition, your brain and gut coordinate and cooperate with one another to control digestion. But if you have IBS, these cooperative signals become distorted, causing the muscles to contract more than it should for a normal bowel movement.
You will experience excessive tension in the muscles of the digestive tract, which may lead to lower abdominal pain and cramping.
Dietary modifications, bowel relaxants, and certain medications can help reduce pain.
Diarrhea is also a key symptom of IBS. It may be accompanied by a feeling of muscle cramps.
To produce a normal bowel movement, the gut contracts and relaxes in a rhythmic way. But IBS causes this rhythm to be disrupted to either speed up or slow down gut muscle contractions. So, IBS can cause both constipation and diarrhea at different times.
As with other IBS symptoms, diarrhea is related to how the brain and gut coordinate with each other.
Constipation is defined as having fewer than three bowel movements per week.
Constipation-predominant IBS is the most common type, affecting nearly 50% of people with IBS.
When the rhythm of the gut slows down, the transit time for the stool to be excreted will also slow down. This will cause the bowel to absorb more water from the stool.
Constipation in IBS also causes a sensation of incomplete bowel movement, which can cause unnecessary straining.
Abdominal pain usually eases with bowel movements.
People with IBS may experience excessive gas. IBS causes a problem with bacteria in the gut and create certain toxins that may cause excessive gas.
Consequently, when there’s a collection of gas in the gut, this can cause the abdomen to feel full and appear rounder than usual. This is called as bloating.
Up to 70% of individuals with IBS report that particular foods trigger symptoms.
They are usually more sensitive to types of carbohydrate that can cause inflammation or irritation in the gut such as fermentable oligo-, mono-saccharides and polyols (FODMAP) foods.
FODMAPs can increase the amount of water going into the gut, and in turn, causing the bacteria to ferment it. This will increase intestinal gas.
Over half of people with IBS report tiredness and lack of energy.
In one study, 160 adults diagnosed with IBS experience limited physical exertion in work, leisure and social interactions due to low stamina.
Another review found that fatigue occurred alongside other IBS symptoms including bowel-related symptoms, psychological distress and health-related quality of life.
The link between IBS and stress are pretty significant. This is because both the control of the gut as well as response to psychological stress involves the nervous system.
The link affects one and the other. So if you feel stress, it can worsen IBS symptoms, and similarly, the physical symptoms of IBS can, in turn, aggravate psychological distress.
Gut-related symptoms, such as intestinal gas and bloating are also linked with brain fog.
Brain fog could be described as either having mental confusion, impaired judgment or having trouble concentrating on a particular task.
But more research is needed to fully understand the link between problems with the gut and brain fog.
IBS is diagnosed by recurrent abdominal pain for at least 6 months, combined with weekly pain for 3 months. Changes in frequency or form of bowel movements as well as relief of pain after bowel movements as also the diagnostic criteria.
If you experience the symptoms of IBS, your doctor may refer you to a gastroenterologist, who can help you identify triggers and discuss ways to control the symptoms.
You may consider some lifestyle changes, such as low-FODMAPs diet, stress relief, exercise, drinking plenty of water and taking over-the-counter laxatives.
Additionally, you can avoid digestive stimulants, such as caffeine, alcohol and sugary beverages to reduce symptoms.
If you think you have IBS, do keep a journal of foods that can trigger IBS symptoms. This will then help your doctor to help diagnose and control the condition better.
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Thorpe, M. (2017). 9 Signs and Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). [online] Healthline. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/9-signs-and-symptoms-of-ibs#section10.
Biggers, A. (2019). 10 signs of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and their causes. [online] Medical News Today. Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324259.php.
nhs.uk. (2017). Symptoms. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs/symptoms/.
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