We often write about rare conditions affecting one in a thousand. However, one of the most common chronic disorders - IBS - strikes as many as 20% of the population, and yet we rarely hear about it. It's time to shed some light on irritable bowel syndrome.
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IBS is elusive. It shares symptoms with many other diseases, its causes are debated, and there is no proven cure. It is incredibly common and yet surrounded by myths. Of course, we have all experienced constipation, abdominal cramping, or diarrhea at some point, but those who suffer from IBS struggle with these symptoms on an everyday basis for years!
- Diarrhea in absence of a food poisoning
- Cramping and abdominal pain
- Urgent bowel movement
IBS is usually diagnosed when a person experiences some of these symptoms at least once a week for three months – in the absence of any underlying disease or condition! In fact, what makes IBS difficult to diagnose is that so many other conditions have the same signs: food intolerances, celiac disease, microbioma imbalances, colitis, even colon cancer (more on its diagnostics here). Even if you suspect you may have IBS, do not try to treat yourself – go to a doctor.
The root of IBS
Contrary to widespread misconceptions, IBS is not caused by intolerance to gluten or lactose. It is not a result of stress, either (although symptoms are often triggered by stress). In fact, the causes of IBS are not known, but some possible culprits are suggested:
- Immune system issues – it may be that immune cells in the gut overreact to certain foods;
- Bacterial infection – many people develop IBS after a serious food poisoning;
- Genetic susceptibility;
- Overgrowth of bacteria in the gut or a lack of “good” bacteria (microbiome);
- Intestinal muscles contract too much or too little;
Lack of communication between the gut and the brain (more on the gut-brain axis here).
The doctor may have to perform a lot of tests to verify if you have IBS – from colonoscopy to a breath test to determine the possible yeast overgrowth. Of course, you will have to be tested to various food intolerances. In order to confirm IBS, all other causes have to be excluded.
Living with IBS
As we have said, so far there is no cure for IBS, but there are ways to alleviate the symptoms. Here are some things to try:
- Try excluding certain foods – IBS symptoms are often triggered by legumes, wheat, and dairy;
- Take a look at the FODMAP diet;
- Increase the amount of fiber in your diet if you suffer from constipation; reduce it if you have diarrhea;
- Exercise! yoga can be especially good for reducing stress and improving metabolism;
- Take probiotics (“good” bacteria) in the form of supplements or drink yogurt or kefir (on the role of probiotics, see also this study);
- Add flaxseed to your diet.
Your doctor may prescribe you a medicine, but the best thing you can do is not be too hard on yourself. As all IBS sufferers know, this condition is difficult to predict: it can flare up suddenly and violently, then disappear for weeks. If you find that your symptoms get much better on vacation, it can mean that stress is your trigger. Perhaps you’ll see that drinking kefir daily helps, or doing breath exercises, or eating more veggies. Although IBS cannot be cured, you can take control of your body and experiment until you find the treatment that works best for you.