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Preventive Health

Irritable Bowel Syndrome: IBS Symptoms and Treatment

5 Mins read

It’s important to be cognizant of IBS symptoms since you’ll definitely want to monitor and treat this condition if you have it. Anywhere between 3 – 20% of people in the US alone currently experience Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Though the condition is considered to be common and far-reaching, it’s also extremely difficult to diagnose, because the symptoms can be associated with a range of other health conditions.

Otherwise known as spastic colon, and spastic colitis, IBS is not the same as “Irritable Bowel Disease”, and it’s not related to other bowel conditions.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome refers to a group of symptoms in the intestine which typically occur together. IBS symptoms vary in severity and duration, depending on the individual. However, IBS symptoms are often long-term in nature.

IBS Symptoms and Signs to Watch For

IBS is a complicated condition because it can cause a wide range of different symptoms. In some cases, one’s IBS symptoms can be so severe they lead to intestinal damage – but this isn’t common. Most of the time, irritable bowel syndrome simply causes symptoms that make life a little less pleasant.

The most common IBS symptoms are:

  • Stomach pain or cramps: Pain and stomach cramps are evident in almost all cases of IBS. These pains can sometimes get worse after eating and may alleviate after going to the bathroom. Many treatments for IBS help to reduce this pain.
  • Bloating and excess gas: Uncomfortable stomach bloating with IBS often leaves your stomach feeling uncomfortably full, swollen, and even tender. You may also have some excess flatulence.
  • Constipation: This is when you struggle to empty your bowels, and you could find your stool is large and hard, making it difficult to pass.
  • Diarrhoea: IBS can also cause your bowel movements to be a lot softer or more frequent, which can also cause discomfort and mean you need to rush to the bathroom more often.

Most IBS symptoms revolve around bowel movements, and they’re not always persistent. 

Those who suffer from IBS may have some days that are symptom-free and other days with worse symptoms than usual. If you’re not sure whether you have IBS or not, look for signs like relief from pain after a bowel movement, or a change in the frequency of your bowel movements.

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What Triggers IBS Symptoms?

One of the factors which can make the treatment of IBS a little easier is understanding what “triggers” your IBS symptoms and trying to avoid those triggers. Everyone suffering from IBS will generally have certain “triggers” which make their condition worse. Most triggers fall into the following categories:

Food triggers:

Certain foods can trigger symptoms of IBS, particularly if you already have an intolerance to this food. Bread and cereals made with refined grains, processed foods, carbonated drinks, and dairy products are common culprits.

If your diet triggers constipation, you may need to consider drinking more water and increasing your fibre intake with plenty of access to products like ground flaxseed, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. If your diet causes diarrhoea, which is usually the case with fried and fatty foods, carbonated drinks, and foods containing wheat, try to eat smaller portions.

It can also be helpful to:

  • Avoid eating food at opposite temperatures (E.g., cold water and steaming soup)
  • Drink water before meals, rather than when you’re eating.
  • Find out which foods you’re most intolerant to, and cut them out of your diet
  • Eat moderate soluble fibre to add bulk to your stools and help you go.

Emotional triggers

While food is most likely to trigger IBS symptoms in most people, stress and anxiety can also make your condition much worse. Worries about work, relationships, money and even your health can cause your gut microbiome to shift, causing gastrointestinal symptoms.

If you believe your emotional situation is causing stress and IBS, try and adjust your lifestyle. Follow a well-balanced diet, get plenty of sleep, and exercise to control your mood. You can even consider talking to loved ones about whatever is worrying you or seeking help from a medical professional if you believe your stress is overwhelming.

Medical triggers

Certain medications can, unfortunately, worsen IBS symptoms like constipation and diarrhoea. People with IBS can sometimes suffer from problems with antidepressants, antibiotics, and products containing sorbitol (like cough syrup).

If you have trouble with a certain medication causing an increase in IBS symptoms, talk to your doctor about switching to a drug that won’t cause flares. You shouldn’t just stop taking any medication completely, however. Stopping medication too fast can cause additional side effects.

Menstrual triggers

Unfortunately, women generally have more symptoms of IBS than men, because symptoms can be more aggressive during the time of menstruation. There’s not a lot you can do if your symptoms are worse around your menstrual cycle. However, you might find it helpful to take birth control pills that make your periods more regular.

Severe PMS can sometimes be managed with the use of certain depression medications like fluoxetine and sertraline. However, it’s best to speak to your doctor about this.

What Causes IBS?

It’s not known exactly what causes IBS. Factors that appear to play a role typically include:

  • Nervous system changes: Abnormalities in the nerves of the digestive system can cause you to feel discomfort when you need to go to the bathroom. Poor signals between your brain and gut can also cause your body to overreact to changes that happen during digestion.
  • Muscle contractions: Muscle contractions in the intestine help to move stool out of your body. However, contractions can sometimes last longer than normal, leading to bloating, diarrhoea, and gas. Alternatively, weak contractions can slow the passage of food.
  • Severe infection: IBS can sometimes develop after diarrhoea caused by a virus or bacteria. This surplus bacterium can continue to influence the stomach and gut system for some time.
  • Changes in gut microbes: Changes in the bacteria in your gut can make an impact on the way the intestines work. This is why many people with IBS take probiotics, to help balance the microbiome properly.
  • Stress: Some researchers believe people who are exposed to particularly stressful events during childhood tend to have more IBS symptoms.
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Coping with IBS: The Basics

Your doctor may be able to offer an IBS diagnosis based on your symptoms – particularly if you have a DNA test to show whether you have any specific sensitivities to certain foods. Your diagnosis may include having you adopt a certain diet or remove certain foods from your diet to rule out allergies.

You might need to have a stool or blood sample done to check for signs of other ailments which could be causing your condition.

Following your diagnosis, your doctor will discuss your options for treatment. In some cases, your doctor will ask you to simply change your routine to work around IBS. Avoiding certain foods is often the best way to minimize discomfort. Home remedies can also help, such as:

  • Eating smaller meals more often
  • Minimising your exposure to anxiety and stress
  • Participating in regular physical exercise
  • Taking probiotics to help manage the bacteria in your gut
  • Taking care to avoid trigger foods like spicy foods and processed products

If your home remedies don’t improve your symptoms, your doctor can also offer some medications. Notably, different people with IBS may respond in different ways to the same medication. It’s important to tell your doctor if you’re already taking any medications which could be worsening your IBS symptoms.

Over time, you’ll work with your doctor to create a strategy that works for you in the fight against IBS. However, you may need to experiment for a while before you see your IBS symptoms becoming less frequent.

Rebekah Carter
57 posts

About author
Rebekah is a committed copywriter and freelance content producer with a history in the technology, marketing, and health sectors. She’s worked with leading brands around the world, and is constantly searching for new ways to expand her knowledge, and skills.
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