Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common multi-faceted disorder, or medical condition, that is characterized by chronic abdominal discomfort, pain, bloating, and changes in bowel habits. The abdominal pain or cramping can be a dull ache; and for some people, it can be intolerable and without relief. IBS can also lead to a tired feeling and even mild depression. Some people with IBS suffer from constipation others from diarrhea, and still others experience bouts of both. Other symptoms associated with IBS include bloating, passage of mucus, straining with bowel movements, a sense of incomplete evacuation after bowel movements, or a sense of urgency to move the bowels.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome has been called by many names: colitis, mucous colitis, spastic colon, spastic bowel and functional bowel disease. Some of these terms are inaccurate. Colitis, for instance, means inflammation of the large intestine. IBS, however, is generally not associated with significant colon inflammation. There is no evidence that IBS leads to colitis, cancer, inflammatory bowel diseases such as Chrohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis. The syndrome does not cause permanent harm to the intestines; nor does it lead to intestinal bleeding. However, left untreated, the symptoms will often persist, leading to intense pain and discomfort. IBS is indeed irritable, often causing a great deal of agony and distress. Although IBS is rarely debilitating; in some cases, it restricts the ability to attend school or social functions, go to work, or even travel short distances. Moreover, people who have IBS may not suffer all the time: some people can go for weeks or months with no symptoms; others may experience symptoms daily.

Since there is no sign of structural disease on standard medical tests, Irritable Bowel Syndrome is considered a “functional disorder,” which can strike otherwise healthy people. The causes are not well understood, but are likely multiple-including biological, psychological, and social factors. Depression and anxiety are frequently associated with IBS, and some research indicates that the syndrome may be more common among people who were abused as children. But psychological factors notwithstanding, the symptoms are real and have a physiological basis. They may involve abnormal muscular contractions of the colon, as well as increased sensitivity of the nerves in the colon. There appears to be a disturbance in the interaction between the intestines, the brain, and the autonomic nervous system that alters regulation of bowel motor function, or sensory function.

How a Healthy Colon Works

The colon, or large intestine, is about five feet long. Its primary function is to absorb water and salts from digestive products that enter from the small intestine. About two quarts of liquid matter enter the colon from the small intestine each day; it can remain there for days until most of the fluid and salts are absorbed. The leftover matter-the-stool then passes through the colon by a pattern of movements to the left side of the colon, where it is stored until a bowel movement occurs.

Movements of the colon propel the contents slowly back and forth, but mainly toward the rectum. A few times each day, strong muscle contractions move down the colon pushing fecal material; some of these contractions result in a bowel movement.

Otherwise ordinary events (such as eating. distension from gas or other material in the colon, and daily stress) can cause the colon to overreact; therefore disrupting the colon’s normal functioning. Certain foods, such as chocolate, high-fat foods, milk products, or large amounts of alcohol, may also trigger these IBS attacks. Caffeine can cause loose stools even in some people without the condition, and it is particularly problematic for people with IBS.

About 10 percent of IBS patients report that their symptoms appear to have originated shortly after a bacterial infection, such as severe gastroenteritis. Clinicians have recognized this “post-infective IBS” for many years, and there is increasing evidence that, in at least a subset of patients, initial infection and inflammation may have played key roles.

Stress and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

For many years, it was thought that Irritable Bowel Syndrome may have been caused by stress. Today it is believed that, while stress may be a trigger for IBS, it may not be the cause. Rather, the symptoms may get worse when you are under stress: when you travel, attend social events or change your daily routine. Your symptoms may also get worse if you do not eat enough healthy foods or after you have eaten a big meal.

IBS and Diet

There are certain foods that can cause or “trigger” symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. If you think you may have the condition, you may want to avoid the following foods:

  • Milk and dairy products
  • Chocolate
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Soda
  • Fatty foods

Who Suffers from IBS?

According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD), approximately one in five U.S. adults experience symptoms of IBS. The syndrome can affect men and women of all ages, but it most often strikes younger women. IBS generally first appears in people in their 20s to 40s, and women are roughly three times more likely than men to suffer from it. Women with IBS seem to have more symptoms during their menstrual periods, suggesting that reproductive hormones may play a role in this disorder.
Treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

While there is no cure for IBS, you can often control symptoms through diet, exercise, and stress management. Dietary changes can help many people with IBS manage their symptoms. Fiber reduces constipation by adding bulk and softening the stool, making it easier to pass. Yet few of us come close to consuming the 20 grams to 35 grams of fiber a day recommended for healthy adults. If you suffer IBS with constipation, gradually introduce high-fiber foods into your diet. Some foods like broccoli and carrots are high in fiber, but they can cause bloating. High fiber foods that don’t cause gas and bloating are apples, peaches, peas, corn, and whole-grain breads and cereals. Dried plums, prune juice, ground flax seed, and water also help loosen bowels. Stay away from coffee, carbonated drinks, and alcohol. They can slow the passage of stools, as can refined foods such as chips, cookies, and white rice.

The goal of IBS treatment, after all, is to do more than just ease bowel problems. It is also to soothe the stomach aches, pain, and bloating that can come with IBS.