Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Know the signs. Take control.

It’s the most common gastrointestinal disorder in the world. Between 25 million and 45 million people in the United States are living with it. It can lead to a poor quality of life, depression and anxiety. And its direct and indirect costs to society exceed $21 billion annually. And yet, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is rarely part of the overall healthcare conversation. That makes June, as Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Month, the right time to learn about this widespread and often life-changing issue.

What is IBS?

IBS is a chronic condition that affects the large intestine. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, excess gas, diarrhea or constipation (sometimes alternating bouts of both) and mucus in the stool. For most people, these symptoms vary in intensity and can even disappear completely for awhile, but 25% of sufferers experience severe issues.

While we know many of the symptoms, the precise cause of IBS is still somewhat of a mystery. Several factors appear to play a role:

  • unusually strong muscle contractions in the intestines;
  • abnormalities in the nerves of the digestive system;
  • intestinal inflammation;
  • an infection after a severe bout of diarrhea caused by bacteria or a virus;
  • an excess of bacteria in the intestines; and
  • changes in “good” bacteria in the intestines.

IBS is more common in people under 50, more likely to strike women (60-65% of cases) than men, linked to a family history of IBS, and associated with mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

Take action to prevent or reduce symptoms.

Because IBS is unpredictable, medical treatments don’t always work for all people. But there are steps you can take that can provide relief:

  • Watch your diet — High-gas foods, such as carbonated drinks, alcohol, caffeine, and raw fruit and vegetables like cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower can cause bloating. Eliminating gluten has been shown to improve diarrhea symptoms, even in people who don’t have celiac disease. You may also be sensitive to certain carbohydrates, such as fructose, fructans, lactose and others found in certain grains, vegetables, fruits and dairy products. If you have IBS symptoms, track the foods you eat to learn which (if any) are acting as triggers. Also, drink plenty of fluids and increase high-fiber foods in your diet.
  • Reduce your stress — Increased stress often leads to worse or more frequent symptoms for people with IBS. To help you get your stress under control, consider counseling, biofeedback, relaxation exercises (such as muscle tightening and release) and mindfulness training, all of which can help you let go of worries and distractions.
  • Exercise regularly and get enough sleep — Both of these can help reduce your stress levels while increasing your energy level.

These steps can help improve and even eliminate your symptoms. However, if you have persistent changes in bowl habits or your symptoms don’t improve, it’s time to see your doctor. A more serious condition, such as colon cancer, may be the cause, especially if you’re experiencing:

  • unexplained weight loss;
  • diarrhea at night;
  • rectal bleeding;
  • iron deficiency anemia;
  • unexplained nausea and vomiting;
  • trouble swallowing; or
  • persistent pain.

If you’re having any of these symptoms, or you experience no relief after taking steps to improve your condition, St. Clair Hospital is here to help. Our gastroenterology team includes 15 specially trained physicians and surgeons in our state-of-the-art lab for screenings, diagnostic tests, and inpatient and outpatient procedures. To schedule an appointment, call 412.942.3950.