What is IBS and what causes it?
IBS is a common disorder that affects the intestine. It is defined clinically by abdominal pain, plus change in bowel habits such as constipation, diarrhea, or both. We don’t know what causes IBS, but it’s likely due to a variety of factors, including genetics. A history of anxiety or depression has been linked to IBS, but not all patients with IBS have these risk factors. Another possible contributor is a change in the gut’s microbiota — or micro-organisms that live in or on the human body — and there are some patients who develop IBS after an infection like food poisoning or a stomach virus. We call this post-infectious IBS.
What are the symptoms?
The hallmark symptoms are changes in bowel habits (constipation, diarrhea, or both) and abdominal pain, which can include gas, bloating, nausea, and stomach cramps. Some patients have pain that improves with defecation, and others have pain irrespective of bowel movements. Symptoms vary from person to person.
Is there a cure for IBS?
Unfortunately, there is no “cure” for IBS, but with the right combination of lifestyle, dietary, cognitive, and pharmacologic therapies, most symptoms can be managed. If you have any alarming symptoms like weight loss or blood in the stool, you should see a doctor immediately. Otherwise, if IBS symptoms are affecting your quality of life, seeing a doctor may provide you with therapeutic options.
Why is IBS more common in women?
The difference may partially be explained by sex differences such as hormones, but healthcare-seeking behavior, access to healthcare, and cultural differences also factor in. For example, in Asia, IBS is equally prevalent in men and women, whereas in the U.S., studies show women are twice as likely as men to have IBS.
Is IBS the same as inflammatory bowel disease?
No. Inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, is a disease involving the immune system, and there is overt inflammation of the intestine. In an IBS case, if you were to perform an endoscopy or colonoscopy, it would look normal, but the symptoms are driven by changes in the way the bowel is functioning. For example, the pain from IBS can be from “visceral hypersensitivity,” which means the nerves of the gut are extremely sensitive to normal things like gas, movement, contraction, and secretion. These normal functions of the gut can trigger pain in someone with IBS but might not trigger pain in someone without IBS.