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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Mr. Syed Muhammad Ilyas

3 min read

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IBS is a common condition of the digestive system. Keep reading to know more about IBS in detail!

What is IBS?

Bowel movement is a natural process that begins with humans consuming food, digesting it, and then excreting what their body doesn’t need in the form of feces. The consistency of the feces and the number of times that bowel movement occurs varies from every human being to another.

When the bowel movements start behaving abnormally, for example, if their frequency increases rapidly, they become too runny, or their frequency decreases, and it lasts for a few days then recurs again after some time, then this condition is termed irritable bowel syndrome or IBS.

IBS mainly affects the large intestine. Symptoms occurring from IBS differ from patient to patient. For example, some people with IBS may suffer from diarrhea, while others may suffer from constipation, or some may suffer from both.

IBS is not a life-threatening condition or disease, but it can affect people’s lifestyles. This means that people suffering from IBS might have to miss work or school frequently, change their working hours, or work from home only. 

IBS causes

The exact causes of irritable bowel syndrome are still unknown. But some similarities between most patients with IBS are: they have developed irritable bowel syndrome after they have gone through an intense episode of diarrhea.

Overproduction or overgrowth of gut bacteria also leads to causing IBS. Another similarity among people suffering from IBS is that most have gone through severe traumatic events or stressful situations in the early years of their lives. 

However, certain risk factors make some people more likely to get IBS than others. Those risk factors are: 

  • You are below 50 years of age
  • You are a female
  • You have IBS patients in the family
  • You suffer from mental health problems like depression and anxiety 

IBS symptoms

Common signs and symptoms of IBS are:

  • Abdominal cramping 
  • Bloating 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Constipation 
  • Diarrhea alternating with constipation
  • Swelling in the lower abdomen
  • Intolerance of certain foods
  • Mucus or blood in the stool
  • Indigestion 
  • Acidity or heartburn
  • Anxiety 
  • Depression 
  • Fatigue and tiredness 
  • Frequent headaches

Certain other diseases may also cause the symptoms mentioned above. To make sure it is IBS, you must notice the timeline of your symptoms and seek help from a physician for a better diagnosis. 

One thing that majorly helps in identifying IBS is its timeline. For example, if the symptoms mentioned above occur continuously every week for 3 to 6 months, they will be identified as IBS. 

Can IBS be triggered by eating specific foods?

Some triggering foods that can make the symptoms of IBS constipation worst are:

  • Packaged foods like chips, chocolates, or cookies
  • Protein-rich diet
  • Cereals or bread
  • Coffee
  • Carbonated drinks and alcohol
  • Dairy products 
  • Some triggering foods that can make the symptoms of IBS-diarrhoea worst are:
  • Dairy products like milk, yogurt or cheese 
  • Fried foods
  • Excessive intake of carbonated drinks, chocolates, alcohol, caffeine, or fructose
  • Food items with wheat
  • Fiber-rich fruits and vegetable

Suppose you are not willing to leave all the triggers mentioned above out of your diet, then what doctors recommend is avoiding at least one or two triggers and seeing how your bowel movement is affected. If your symptoms get better, you need to continue avoiding those specific triggering foods only.

If avoiding those two things didn’t improve your symptoms, you can pick another two items from the trigger list and start avoiding them for a few days and see how your bowel reacts.

In the end, you will know what your specific triggers are. Then all you will have to do is avoid them for some time. After that, you can try introducing those items again gradually and see how your bowel reacts. 

How can IBS be diagnosed?

The diagnosis for irritable bowel syndrome is a bit tacky because the symptoms caused by irritable bowel syndrome resonate with many other diseases like:

  • Food allergies like lactose intolerance
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Celiac disease 
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Enzyme deficiencies
  • Reactions from certain medications 

So to make an apt diagnosis, your physician will make notes of all the symptoms you’ve been noticing. After that, they will compare your symptoms with the symptoms of IBS. And if they see similarities, they will proceed with the diagnosis by prescribing these imaging and blood tests:

  • Colonoscopy 
  • Stool tests 
  • Upper endoscopy
  • Blood tests to rule out infections, thyroid problems, or anemia
  • X-rays

How can IBS be treated?

Following is the regimen recommended by doctors to treat IBS:

  • Intake of prescription medications like loperamide, eluxadoline, alosetron, linaclotide, plecanatide, antidepressants, etc.
  • Intake of probiotics
  • Lifestyle and dietary changes
  • Mental health therapies like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and relaxation training

Can following a specific diet help people with IBS?

Medicinal intervention is important for the treatment of IBS. Other than medication, some dietary changes can also be helpful for people suffering from IBS. These are the diets that most physicians recommend to people suffering from IBS:

1. Low FODMAP diet

FODMAP or carbohydrates are present in many food items that we take daily. These items pull more water into the bowel; hence, they make the symptoms of IBS worse. If you are following a low Fodmap diet, you must avoid:

  • Dairy products
  • Fruits like apples, peaches, watermelon, mangoes, plums, and nectarines
  • Chickpeas and other legumes
  • Vegetables like broccoli, asparagus, onions, artichokes, and brussels sprouts
  • Artificial sweeteners 

2. Gluten-free diet

Gluten is a protein generally found in wheat-based edibles. Gluten intake can be harmful to the intestines of gluten intolerant people, hence causing IBS. So following a gluten-free diet, i.e., avoiding bread, pasta, store-bought sauces, beer, and crackers, can help improve IBS symptoms.

3. Low-fat diet

Excessive fat intake is not healthy for anybody, especially those suffering from IBS. A healthy individual’s daily intake of fat should be no more than 27 grams. You can substitute animal fats and fried foods easily by switching them with lean meat, fruits, vegetables, and grains. 

4. High fiber diet

If you’re someone suffering from IBS constipation, you must try increasing fiber in your diet. An average person must take at least 25 to 30 g of fiber in a day. Almost all kinds of fruits and vegetables are rich in fiber. So if you gradually increase the number of fruits and veggies in your diet, your constipation will go away. 

Disclaimer: The contents of this article are intended to raise awareness about common health issues and should not be viewed as sound medical advice for your specific condition. You should always consult with a licensed medical practitioner prior to following any suggestions outlined in this article or adopting any treatment protocol based on the contents of this article.

Mr. Syed Muhammad Ilyas - Author Mr. Syed Muhammad Ilyas is a very well regarded Dietitian and has a number of certifications under his belt, including B.Sc. (Hons)(Human Nutrition & Dietetics) and M.Sc. (Hons)(Human Nutrition & Dietetics) as well as 4 years of experience in his field.
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