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Bowled Over By Your Bowel: IBS Causes, Risk Factors & Treatments

Medically reviewed on Mar 14, 2017 by C. Fookes, BPharm

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

It's actually easier to say what Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is NOT than to define what it actually is.

This is because symptoms of IBS are similar to countless other conditions - such as endometriosis, giardiasis, food allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis....the list goes on and on. Most of these conditions need to be excluded before a definite diagnosis of IBS can be made.

According to the American College of Gastroenterology, IBS is defined as "abdominal discomfort associated with altered bowel habits".

Symptoms of IBS Include Altered Bowel Habits and Stomach Pain

Symptoms of IBS vary a lot. Even in the same person, IBS symptoms may change from month-to-month. Most people with IBS have at least two of these symptoms:

  • Multiple episodes of stomach discomfort in the past year
  • Altered bowel habits - passing feces more or less frequently than normal
  • Pain or discomfort that lessens after a bowel movement
  • Mucus mixed in with the feces
  • Swelling or bloating of the stomach, or a feeling of fullness soon after eating.

Increased stomach gurgling or bowel sounds are also reported frequently by people with IBS.

How Hard is IBS to Diagnose?

Short answer: IBS is difficult to diagnose!

It takes most people three years and at least three different doctors before they are given a diagnosis of IBS. Part of the difficulty with diagnosis rests with the many different presentations of IBS. Some people are more likely to have constipation (IBS-C), others diarrhea (IBS-D), while a few experience both constipation and diarrhea at different times.

To add to the confusion, symptoms are generally not stable over a lifetime and can change without warning.

Why Did it Happen to Me?

Nobody knows what causes IBS but there are certain risk factors that make you more likely to get the condition.

IBS is twice as likely to occur in women than men and more common in people under age 45. If you have a family member with the disorder, you are also at higher risk of getting it. Psychological stress, caused by anxiety, depression, personality disorder, or a history of sexual abuse can bring on IBS.

IBS has also been associated with smoking.

How Much of a Role Does Diet Play in IBS?

Around 30-50% of IBS sufferers relate their symptoms to food allergies or food intolerances. However, trials have found that only 1 in 5 people reacted when given these presumed offending foods in a blinded manner.

Even more surprising is the lack of good quality research around diet and IBS. Gluten exacerbated symptoms in 68% of IBS sufferers in one trial compared with the 40% who were on a gluten-free diet. In another trial, promise was anticipated for a low-FODMAP diet (limits foods high in fructose, lactose, fructans, galactans and polyols); however, study results were barely significant.

Does Fiber Make a Difference?

The relationship between fiber and IBS is...you guessed it...not straightforward. First, let's explain that there are two types fiber - soluble and insoluble.

Soluble fiber attracts water and turns to a gel during digestion. It is found in foods such as oat bran, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, some fruits and vegetables, and in psyllium, a common fiber supplement. Research has shown it to be beneficial in IBS, helping to soothe and regulate the digestive tract.

We'll review insoluble fiber in the next slide.

The Dilemma Associated With Insoluble Fiber

Insoluble fiber is found in foods such as wheat bran, vegetables, and whole grains. It is a powerful digestive stimulant and helps food to pass more quickly through the stomach and intestines.

Unfortunately, research has found it not so good for people with IBS. The dilemma is that insoluble fiber is found in a lot of healthy foods, so removing it from your diet all together is not a good idea, as you would be missing out on a valuable dietary component.

Eating small amounts of insoluble fiber and mixing foods that contain both soluble and insoluble fiber seems to help.

Probiotics Can Reduce Bloating and Gas

Probiotics are "friendly" bacteria that naturally live inside our bodies. Many experts believe a lot of our digestive problems arise when the balance of bacteria inside our gut gets out of balance. Supplements that contain a mixture of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium seem to work best for IBS.

Prebiotics are nondigestable food ingredients (usually a type of carbohydrate) that act like food for bacteria. Sometimes you will find a prebiotic mixed with a probiotic (called a synbiotic). Evidence so far hasn't found these as good for IBS, but research is ongoing.

Relieving Those Cramps

Most of the pain experienced in IBS is caused by spasms that occur in the walls of your intestine. Antispasmodics such as hyoscyamine (Anaspaz, Cystospaz, Levsin) and dicyclomine (Bentyl) relieve colicky-type pain and are good for occasional use. However, they do tend to cause side effects such as a dry mouth, drowsiness, and constipation.

Try peppermint oil capsules as an alternative to antispasmodics. These do much the same thing but without any side effects.

Stop the Sprints and Use of Antidepressants

Loperamide (Imodium) stops those fast sprints to the toilet, but be careful not to overdo the dosage or you end up going from one extreme (diarrhea) to the other (constipation).

Antidepressants (eg, amitriptyline, doxepin, Lexapro, Celexa) are effective at relieving abdominal pain and providing overall symptom relief in people with IBS. However, side effects such as weight gain, drowsiness, constipation, and sexual dysfunction tend to limit their use for IBS.

Viberzi For Irritable Bowel Syndrome With Diarrhea (IBS-D)

Eluxadoline (Virbezi) treats abdominal pain and diarrhea, hallmark symptoms of IBS-D. It is the first in its class and provides a welcome treatment alternative to standard anti-diarrheal medicines.

Virbezi works on opioid receptors to relieve diarrhea and is classified as a controlled substance. Potentially it is a target for people who abuse prescription medicines or street drugs. Theoretically, there is a risk of psychological dependence.

Common side effects of Virbezi include constipation (although severe constipation is rare), nausea and abdominal pain. Pancreatitis is more likely to occur in people who drink more than three alcoholic drinks per day. People aged over 65 years may be more likely to develop side effects but anybody who develops severe, unusual abdominal pain or constipation that lasts longer than four days should call their doctor. Sphincter of Oddi spasm - a contraction of the muscular valve that controls the flow of bile and pancreatic juice - is rare but people without a gall bladder are more at risk.

Other IBS Agents

Both Linzess and Amitiza soften stools and stimulate bowel movements, so they are effective in people with constipation-predominant IBS, but not so good for people who have diarrhea as their main symptom.

Rifaximin (Xifaxan) is an antibiotic used occasionally in diarrhea-predominant IBS to relieve bloating and reduce overall symptoms.

Alosteron (Lotronex) has some rare, but serious, side effects and can only be prescribed for women suffering with severe, disabling, diarrhea-predominant IBS.

Improving Symptoms: Start With Your Diet

Keeping a food diary may help you to work out what foods seem to trigger your IBS. Be prepared to experiment with many different foods, as this is often harder to work out than it seems. Also be aware that even if you eliminate certain foods, you may still get IBS symptoms.

Many people with IBS find gluten-free diets helpful, and avoiding foods like cabbage, beans and cauliflower may cut down on the amount of gas produced. Restricted diets are notorious for lacking in certain vital nutrients so talk with a dietician to make sure you are still getting what you need each day.

Other Tricks That May Help

Eating small, regular meals throughout the day is kinder on your digestive system than skipping meals or having massive feeds.

Water is the best liquid you can drink. Alcohol and beverages that contain caffeine stimulate your intestines and can make diarrhea worse - carbonated drinks just give you more gas!

Exercise is a great mood lifter and can help reduce anxiety you may have about your condition.

A heating pad to place on your stomach when the pain is bad may also help.

Build Your Support Network

There are going to be times when you don't feel like doing things. Having friends and family that understand your condition is important.

It's far easier to say "I'm feeling really unwell, I can't come out tonight", than to make up excuses for backing out of plans.

If you have chosen your friends wisely, they'll want the best for you. Sharing how you feel with somebody that cares provides a good outlet for your emotions, as well.

Finished: Bowled Over By Your Bowel: IBS Causes, Risk Factors and Treatments

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