What do you need to know about Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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It is estimated that 1 in every 5 Australians experiences the unpleasant symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, yet it remains highly misunderstood (BetterHealth Victoria, 2021).

Irritable bowel syndrome is a chronic gastrointestinal disorder that affects millions worldwide and often comes with a combination of symptoms.

You might be surprised to hear that IBS may result from a disturbance in how your gut, brain, and nervous system interact with each other. 

Irritable bowel syndrome is characterised by episodes of regular cramps, diarrhoea, and constipation; in short, problems with how your bowel works. 

And while it is one of the commonly treated digestive disorders by gastroenterologists, we bet there are still several things you didn’t know about IBS. 

Here is the list of things you need to know about irritable bowel syndrome.  

The gut and the brain talk to each other

The brain and gut relation is vital. IBS can be attributed to the miscommunication between the brain and the gut, and the connection goes both ways. (Shortsleeve 2018)

A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain will send back alerts to the gut. This is via the brain-gut axis, making IBS mystifying because a person might experience gastrointestinal issues without any apparent physical cause (Rege, Sanil & Graham 2021). 

So, next time someone says “gut-wrenching experience” or “butterflies in the stomach,” it is for a reason. 

The hallmark symptom of irritable bowel syndrome is not just changing bowel habits

Irritable bowel syndrome is not just changing bowel habits; it can be a host of other symptoms such as diarrhea, bloating, the presence of white mucus in stool, nausea, stomach cramps, or multiple combinations of these symptoms. 

Having said that, IBS can cause varying symptoms in people. Sometimes, symptoms tend to come and go over time and sometimes stay for several days or weeks.

It can also be characterised by the urgent need to go to the toilet and the feeling of not having wholly emptied after coming back from the bathroom. 

Nobody knows what causes irritable bowel syndrome

No one exactly knows what causes IBS. Although certain risk factors increase your chances of getting IBS, no research has proven what causes it. 

However, apart from certain trigger foods, there are factors that experts believe may be involved in causing IBS;

  1. issues with digestion
  2. oversensitive nerves in the bowel tract (myDr, 2016)
  3. genetics  
  4. PTSD or stress

For instance, an immediate family member of an individual with IBS is two to three times more likely to suffer from IBS than the rest of the population (Saito, 2011). 

IBS affects more women than men

IBS is a significant health issue in women. According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, about 60% to 65% of individuals who report IBS are female. Researches have revealed that this is primarily due to different hormones in both genders. 

A study has found that the nerve cells that control food movement through the intestines are more sluggish in response to brain inputs in women than in men (American Psychological Society, 2015).

Food sensitivity can trigger IBS

People with IBS are sensitive to particular foods. A study on food intolerance found that dairy products containing fructose and wheat can trigger IBS symptoms such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea (Ärzteblatt, 2009). 

The best way to know whether a particular food contributes to IBS symptoms is through an elimination diet, which involves examining how you react to different food types.  

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is not the same as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

Despite sounding similar, irritable bowel syndrome and irritable bowel disease are way different. While IBS is a disorder in the GI tract, IBD is the inflammation and destruction of the bowel wall. 

And unlike irritable bowel disease, IBS is not associated with the immune system or triggered by eating a specific type of food or diet. 

American Physiological Society, (2015).  Why gastrointestinal disorders afflict women more often. (ScienceDaily). More information here.

Ärzteblatt, Deutscher (2009). The Differential Diagnosis of Food Intolerance. More information here. 

BetterHealth Victoria, (2021). Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). More information here.

myDr, (2021). Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment. More information here. 

Rege, Sanil, and James. (2021). The Simplified Guide to the Gut-Brain Axis – How the Gut Talks to the Brain. More information here. 

Saito, (2010). The Role of Genetics in IBS (Gastroenterology Clinics of North America). More information here. 

Shortsleeve, (2021). Irritable Bowel Syndrome Can Give You Cramping, Diarrhea, and Constipation All at Once. (Women’s Health). More information here. 

Authored by:

Queensland Gastroenterology and Professor Darrell Crawford

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