Since 1997, April has been designated as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Awareness Month by the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders.¹ IBS is a common disorder, but it can still cause patients pain, discomfort, distress, and general inconvenience. While not all cases are severe, more serious cases of IBS could result in rectal bleeding, unexplained weight loss, and iron deficiency anemia.²
Patients may need more education on IBS to better understand, detect, or manage the disorder. Here are some IBS basics that medical professionals can explain to their patients.
Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome
IBS is a chronic gastrointestinal disorder that affects the large intestine in particular. It has been estimated that 3 to 20% of the US population may be affected by the disorder and its symptoms.³ These symptoms can include:
- Abdominal pain
- Cramping, bloating, and gas
While there isn’t evidence that IBS has a link to increased risk of gastrointestinal cancers, patients that also have serious symptoms like low iron, vomiting, or abdominal pain that is not relieved by a bowel movement may have more serious conditions.⁴
What Triggers IBS?
IBS does not have a set cause, but the way it affects a patient’s intestines and nervous system means it can have specific triggers. Many patients have reported that going through a particularly stressful, anxious time can trigger symptoms to appear in a heightened manner. Menstruation has also been said to exacerbate bowel problems in patients with IBS.⁵
Food and diet can also be a major trigger of IBS symptoms. Trigger foods are not consistent from patient to patient, but some foods that people with IBS should generally avoid are:
- Dairy products
- Caffeine and soda
- Fried foods
- Foods high in sugar
- Foods commonly known to cause gas (cabbage, beans, broccoli, etc.)
Testing for IBS
While some patients may be able to get an IBS diagnosis from a physician based just on their symptoms, additional testing might be needed if the condition is more complicated.
A gastroenterologist may request a blood or stool sample to identify any irregularities or infections. If irregularities are found, a colonoscopy may be recommended in order to diagnose or rule out other conditions like colorectal cancer.⁶ X-rays may also be taken to determine if there is another cause for a patient’s symptoms.
IBS cannot be cured, but the symptoms can be managed. Management often involves lifestyle changes, such as dietary modifications and an increase in exercise. Behavorial therapy may be recommended if stress is causing IBS symptoms to become exacerbated. If symptoms persist despite making these changes, patients may be prescribed medication based on their symptoms (ie, pain medication, laxatives, anti-diarrheal treatments, tricyclic antidepressants).
The IBS Diet
In order to manage pain and discomfort, individuals with IBS must modify their diet based on their specific triggers and sensitivities. A diet low in FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) might also be recommended for relief.⁷ FODMAPs are a short-chain type of carbohydrate that is found in foods like dairy products, grains, and fruits and vegetables that are heavy in fructose. When following a low-FODMAP regimen to regulate their IBS, patients must significantly limit their consumption of these types of food in order to receive the most optimal results.
- IBS Awareness Month. International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. https://www.aboutibs.org/ibs-awareness-month.html. Updated March 2, 2021. Accessed April 2, 2021.
- Irritable bowel syndrome – symptoms and causes. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20360016. Accessed April 2, 2021.
- Grundmann O, Yoon SL. Irritable bowel syndrome: epidemiology, diagnosis and treatment: an update for health-care practitioners. J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2010 Apr;25(4):691-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-1746.2009.06120.x. Epub 2010 Jan 13. PMID: 20074154.
- Irritable bowel syndrome – diagnosis and treatment. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20360064. Accessed April 2, 2021.
- IBS and your period, hormone fluctuations & GI function. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/ibs-and-period. Updated January 28, 2019. Accessed April 2, 2021.
- Diagnosing irritable bowel syndrome in adults. NYU Langone Health. https://nyulangone.org/conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome-in-adults/diagnosis. Accessed April 2, 2021.
- Low-FODMAP diet. International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. https://www.aboutibs.org/low-fodmap-diet.html. Updated June 12, 2018. Accessed April 2, 2021.