Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), also known as mucous colitis or spastic colon, is a chronic gastrointestinal (GI) disorder. Put simply, that means that your bowels behave abnormally without evidence of damage from the disease. IBS affects 10 to 15 percent of adults in the U.S. and can significantly compromise their quality of life.
What Causes IBS?
Many health experts are still puzzled by IBS and what causes the disorder. When examined, the bowels of those with IBS don’t display any noticeable irregularities. There is evidence that stress, anxiety, a poor diet, and carbohydrate malabsorption can all contribute to the disorder.
For some people, IBS begins with an infection. Bacterial gastroenteritis is an inflammation of the GI tract that occurs when bacteria cause an infection in your gut. Research has found that somewhere between 3 and 36 percent of these infections lead to long-term IBS symptoms. However, there are many people with IBS who have never had bacterial gastroenteritis, so there must be other causes.
Another theory is that IBS may be caused by an imbalance in the brain-gut axis. The brain-gut axis is the biochemical communication system between the GI tract and the central nervous system. What this means is that if there is a disturbance in the gut, the issue may not be in the gut itself. Your gut could be receiving disrupted signals from the brain.
Think of it like a malfunctioning GPS system that tells you to take a left into a lake. The car drives exactly as it should, but the information you get is bad, leading to a soggy mess.
Symptoms of IBS
The classic symptoms of IBS differ from person to person. Even the same individual can experience wildly differing symptoms from one week to the next. Some people experience constipation, others diarrhea. There are roughly three types of IBS, which are designated by the predominant symptom: constipation (IBS-C), diarrhea (IBS-D), or some combination of the two (IBS-M). For a clinical diagnosis, the symptoms of IBS must last for at least three days a month for three months.
Those afflicted with IBS can experience a number of secondary symptoms. Other IBS symptoms may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Stomach ache
- Unsatisfying bowel movements
- Mucus in stool
- Urgent need to poop when you wake up or after meals
Psychological effects, including anxiety and depression, often accompany IBS as well. People with this disorder often have low serotonin levels, although it’s yet unclear whether low serotonin causes IBS or if IBS causes serotonin levels to drop.
Because food is moving irregularly through your digestive system, nutrient absorption can be affected. If you have IBS, you may not absorb the full nutritional value of the food you eat.
Who Is at Risk
While the condition can afflict anyone, certain groups face a higher risk. IBS affects about twice as many women as men. Young women are most likely to develop the condition, and symptoms usually appear before the age of 45. Other risk factors include a family history of IBS, food sensitivities, and certain medications. Stress also plays a factor, although we do not yet know if stress causes IBS or if it’s the other way around.
Further complicating an IBS diagnosis is the fact that many conditions produce similar symptoms. These conditions could include:
- Colorectal cancer
- Bacterial infections
- Intestinal parasites
- Food poisoning
- Food allergies
- Menstrual pain
- Crohn’s disease
- Bowel blockages
- Small bowel bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
- Yeast overgrowth
- Leaky gut
This is only a partial list; there are many more potential causes of IBS symptoms. You’ll notice that some of these conditions are quite serious. Don’t self-diagnose — consult a professional. Your health care provider can perform tests to determine the root cause of the issue.
The Difference Between IBS & IBD
IBS is often mistaken for another condition, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). IBS is far from pleasant, but IBD is more serious. IBD is actually an umbrella term that refers to a group of chronic inflammatory disorders of the bowel, including ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Unlike IBS, IBD can cause inflammation, ulcers, or other visible damage to the bowel and is thus more easily diagnosed.
Triggers of IBS Symptoms
IBS is a little different for everyone, but some things are common triggers for many people. Eating certain foods can cause IBS symptoms to flare up. Avoid dairy products, caffeine, sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, fried food, and alcohol. Heavily processed foods like chips and microwave meals can also cause difficulties.
Other triggers of IBS include:
- Too little exercise
- Stress and anxiety
- Menstrual cycles
- Chewing gum
- Certain medications including antibiotics and antidepressants
Natural IBS Remedies
Conventional medicine tends to focus on treating the symptoms of IBS, rather than addressing the root cause of the condition. They have an array of medications, but the efficacy of pharmaceuticals at treating IBS is inconsistent at best. Some doctors even recommend antidepressants despite the fact that antidepressants are completely ineffective at treating GI symptoms. Considering the known detrimental side effects of these drugs, this is hardly an ideal solution. Fortunately, there are some simple, natural lifestyle changes you can adopt to reduce IBS occurrences.
Change Your Diet
Because certain foods trigger IBS symptoms, a simple change in dietary habits may help. Don’t eat large meals as they can cause cramping and diarrhea. Instead of three large meals each day, try eating 4-5 smaller meals.
Feed your body healthy food. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and other high-fiber foods can help promote gut health. There are two types of dietary fiber, soluble and insoluble. Both can help ease the symptoms of IBS. Try to eat about 20 grams of dietary fiber every day.
Multiple studies have found that a gluten-free diet can help improve bowel function in people with certain types of IBS.[7, 8] If you think you have a sensitivity, try cutting gluten out of your diet.
Keep a Food Journal
As the symptoms of IBS are so indistinct, different people can have wildly different food triggers. Your triggers could vary from one month to the next. It’s complicated, but one way to simplify things is to keep a food journal.
Get a small notebook and keep it on you at all times. A notepad app on your phone works just as well. Write down everything you eat and drink, noting the date and time of day. Be thorough; even condiments could be an IBS trigger, so don’t leave anything out. Record IBS symptoms and how you feel every day, both mentally and physically. It could even be a specific ingredient that triggers IBS, so look for patterns. For example, pasta, crackers, and soy sauce may seem unrelated, but they all usually contain wheat, so a reaction to all three could mean gluten is the culprit.
Your bowel will have a difficult time if your waste is a hard, dry lump, so be sure to stay properly hydrated. Are you drinking enough water? If you’re like most people, you’re probably at least a little dehydrated. Remember how your mom told you to drink eight glasses of water a day? She was pretty close to right. Eight glasses is a good start, but a slightly better estimate is to drink half your weight in ounces every day. In other words, if you weigh 200 lbs, drink at least 100 oz of water. Healthy fluids like coconut water and detox water count toward this goal, but dehydrating liquids, like coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol do not.
Drinking plenty of water isn’t only necessary to prevent constipation. Hydration is just as important for those with diarrhea — even more so, in fact. Because you’re losing a lot more water with every bowel movement, your risk of dehydration is much higher.
Get More Exercise
Physical activity doesn’t just build muscle and burn fat; it’s one of the best things you can do for gut health as well. Exercise reduces stress and helps maintain GI function. Sign up for a yoga class. Studies have found that twice daily yoga sessions are as effective at improving IBS symptoms as conventional treatments.
Manage Stress Effectively
It’s clear that there is a psychological component to IBS. While stress likely doesn’t cause the condition, excessive stress can impair GI function and make the symptoms worse. Everyone experiences some form of stress, but the trick is to learn effective stress management techniques. Find a method that works for you. I recommend meditation to relax both body and mind.
Your gut is home to beneficial microorganisms which make up your microbiota. A healthy microbiota has a profound positive effect on your gut health. Consume probiotic foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha or take a probiotic supplement to maintain healthy gut flora. Researchers have discovered that a bacterial species called Bifidobacterium infantis is especially effective at improving the symptoms of IBS.
Cleanse Your Colon
After you’ve altered your diet and lifestyle, try performing a full colon cleanse. Your colon is your main route of elimination, and a blockage can cause waste products to accumulate in your gut, compromising your health. When combined with diet, hydration, and exercise, regular colon cleanses can gently detoxify your bowels and normalize bowel function.
Have you had an experience with IBS? What worked? What didn’t? Tell us about it in the comments.
- "Definition & Facts for Irritable Bowel Syndrome." National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Feb. 2015. Web. 14 July 2017.
- Saha, Lekha. "Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Pathogenesis, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Evidence-Based Medicine." World Journal of Gastroenterology : WJG20.22 (2014): 6759–6773. PMC. Web. 14 July 2017.
- Ehrich, Steven D. "Irritable Bowel Syndrome." University of Maryland Medical Center. University of Maryland, 2 Feb. 2016. Web. 14 July 2017.
- "Conditions with Similar Symptoms As Irritable Bowel Syndrome." University of Maryland Medical Center. University of Maryland, 8 Nov. 2005. Web. 17 July 2017.
- Talley, Nicholas J. "Antidepressants in IBS: Are We Deluding Ourselves?" The American Journal of Gastroenterology 99.5 (2004): 921-23. Web. 17 July 2017.
- "Irritable Bowel Syndrome." Womenshealth.gov. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 28 Apr. 2017. Web. 17 July 2017.
- Vazquez-Roque, Maria I., et al. "A Controlled Trial of Gluten-Free Diet in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome-Diarrhea: Effects on Bowel Frequency and Intestinal Function." Gastroenterology 144.5 (2013): 903–911.e3. PMC. Web. 17 July 2017.
- Aziz, Imran, Nick Trott, Rebecca Briggs, John R. North, Marios Hadjivassiliou, and David S. Sanders. "Efficacy of a Gluten-Free Diet in Subjects With Irritable Bowel Syndrome-Diarrhea Unaware of Their HLA-DQ2/8 Genotype." Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology 14.5 (2016): n. pag. Web.
- "Constipation." University Health Services. University of California, Berkeley, Feb. 2009. Web. 26 June 2017.
- Brenner, Darren M., Matthew J. Moeller, William D. Chey, and Philip S. Schoenfeld. "The Utility of Probiotics in the Treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Systematic Review." The American Journal of Gastroenterology 104.4 (2009): 1033-049. Web. 17 July 2017.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.