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Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects the stomach and intestines, also known as the gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms include cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, or both. IBS is a chronic condition that requires long-term management.

Causes of IBS

The exact cause of IBS is not known. However, several factors may play a role in triggering or worsening the symptoms. These factors include:

  • Muscle contractions in the intestine: The walls of the intestines are lined with layers of muscle that contract as they move food through your digestive tract. Contractions that are stronger and last longer than usual can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea. Weak contractions can slow food passage and lead to hard, dry stools.

  • Nervous system: Issues with the nerves in your digestive system may cause discomfort when your abdomen stretches from gas or stool. Poorly coordinated signals between the brain and the intestines can cause your body to overreact to changes that typically occur in the digestive process. This can result in pain, diarrhea or constipation.

  • Severe infection: IBS can develop after a severe bout of diarrhea caused by bacteria or a virus. This is called gastroenteritis. IBS might also be associated with a surplus of bacteria in the intestines (bacterial overgrowth).

  • Early life stress: People exposed to stressful events, especially in childhood, tend to have more symptoms of IBS.

  • Changes in gut microbes: Examples include changes in bacteria, fungi and viruses, which typically reside in the intestines and play a key role in health.

Symptoms of IBS

Symptoms of IBS vary but are usually present for a long time. The most common include:

  • Abdominal pain, cramping or bloating that is related to passing a bowel movement

  • Changes in appearance of bowel movement

  • Changes in how often you are having a bowel movement

The sensation of incomplete evacuation and increased gas or mucus in the stool are often associated symptoms.

IBS can be divided into different types based on your bowel movement problems. The type of IBS can affect your treatment. Certain medicines only work for certain types of IBS. There are times when people with IBS have regular bowel movements and other days when they have abnormal ones. Based on the abnormal bowel movements you experience, you can determine the type of IBS you have:

  • IBS with constipation (IBS-C): Most of your poop is hard and lumpy.

  • IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D): Most of your poop is loose and watery.

  • IBS with mixed bowel habits (IBS-M): You have both hard and lumpy bowel movements and loose and watery movements on the same day.

Diagnosis of IBS

In addition to your symptoms and medical history, your healthcare provider may perform some tests to rule out other conditions that may cause similar symptoms, such as:

  • Blood tests to check for anemia, inflammation, infection or celiac disease.

  • Stool tests to look for blood, parasites or bacterial overgrowth.

  • Breath tests to measure hydrogen or methane levels in your breath after consuming certain sugars. This can indicate bacterial overgrowth or lactose intolerance.

  • Colonoscopy to examine the inside of your colon for polyps, inflammation or cancer.

Treatment of IBS

The following medications may be prescribed by your healthcare provider depending on the severity of your symptoms and the type of IBS you have:

  • Antispasmodics to relax the muscles of your intestines and reduce cramping and pain.

  • Antidiarrheals to slow down your bowel movements and reduce diarrhea.

  • Laxatives to soften your stools and stimulate your bowel movements.

  • Fiber supplements to bulk up your stools and make them easier to pass.

  • Probiotics to restore the balance of good bacteria in your intestines and improve digestion.

  • Antidepressants to ease pain and stress by affecting the nerve signals between your brain and your gut.

  • Antibiotics to treat bacterial overgrowth if present.

In addition to medication, you can also try some dietary and lifestyle changes to improve your symptoms. These include:

  • Keeping a food diary to identify and avoid foods that trigger or worsen your symptoms. Common culprits include dairy products, gluten, beans, cabbage, broccoli, onions, garlic, spicy foods, fatty foods, caffeine, alcohol and artificial sweeteners.

  • Eating smaller meals more frequently throughout the day to avoid overloading your digestive system.

  • Drinking plenty of fluids, especially water, to stay hydrated and prevent constipation.

  • Increasing your intake of dietary fiber from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds to promote regular bowel movements. However, do this gradually and with plenty of fluids to avoid gas and bloating.

  • Exercising regularly to reduce stress, improve blood flow and stimulate your intestines.

  • Managing stress with relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, massage or therapy. Stress can worsen your symptoms by affecting your nervous system and gut microbes.

Prevention of IBS

There is no sure way to prevent IBS, but you can reduce your risk by following some of the same steps that help treat it. These include:

  • Eating a balanced and varied diet that is rich in fiber and low in fat, sugar and processed foods.

  • Avoiding foods that you are allergic or intolerant to, such as dairy products or gluten.

  • Drinking enough fluids to stay hydrated and prevent constipation.

  • Exercising regularly to keep your body and mind healthy and relaxed.

  • Managing stress with positive coping strategies and seeking professional help if needed.

The digestive system is affected by IBS, a common but uncomfortable condition. IBS is characterized by cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, or constipation. The cause of IBS is unknown, but several factors may contribute. Medication, diet and lifestyle changes can help manage your symptoms. By following a healthy and balanced lifestyle, you can also reduce your risk of developing IBS. Consult your healthcare provider if you have questions or concerns about IBS.

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