IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) is such a nebulous condition it can be difficult to identify as a distinct illness at all. The most common symptoms are abdominal cramping, bloating and gas, and diarrhea or constipation. With such normal signs as that – which can occur with dozens of other, more serious conditions – it can be hard to diagnose IBS.
Yet, physicians and researchers regard this syndrome as among the most common disorders and often distinguish it as much by what it is not, or by the absence of signs of other diseases. Unlike more serious ailments, like Crohn’s or colitis for example, IBS does not produce inflammation of the colon. Neither does it increase the odds of colorectal cancer, as those diseases can.
Because the symptoms themselves are so varied – indeed sometimes contradictory, such as alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea – it is difficult to narrow down the presence of IBS. However, it is a chronic condition – occasional cramping or gas is completely normal and doesn’t merit a special name – and so it receives a specific tag.
As semi-digested food (called “chyme”) moves into the colon, where water is extracted and helpful bacteria create vitamins B and K, the intestinal muscles contract to keep it going. We’re normally not aware of that contraction, called peristalsis. In IBS, those contractions can be spasmodic and stronger than normal, causing food to move too quickly or too slowly. The first often leads to diarrhea, the second to constipation.
There is research to suggest that some individuals are hypersensitive to that movement. They sense more clearly the stretching of the bowel produced by gas or bloating. That can lead to stress that tends to amplify the ill effects. Since women are more prone to IBS, some studies believe that hormones play a role, as well, particularly since symptoms often worsen during the menstrual period.
Since diet plays a role – some experience IBS after consuming chocolate, milk, or alcohol – it is possible to modify the symptoms in some cases. Reducing intake is an obvious method, but diet alterations help, too. Eating yogurt, for example, which contains organisms that break down lactose sugars, can help counter the effects of drinking milk for those who are lactose intolerant.
Controlling stress is often more difficult than simply an act of will. Education and counseling can provide techniques to reduce the anxiety and feeling of being overwhelmed that are typical of the condition. That often leads to a reduction or even elimination of the symptoms of IBS.
Nearly one in five American adults are believed to suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome yet, because it is so easy to confuse with normal stomach upsets, fewer than half seek professional diagnosis and treatment. The condition itself is not particularly serious and certainly not life threatening. But the overlap in many of the symptoms warrant a visit to the physician if they persist. That will help individuals discover if a more serious underlying condition is at fault.