Don’t pooh-pooh poop problems
“Sometimes I wonder if the anxiety many of us feel is the cause of irritable bowel syndrome, or whether irritable bowel syndrome is the cause of the anxiety,” a man named Jeffrey wrote on the website www.ibspatient.org. It’s an interesting thought because very often people who suffer from IBS have no idea why.
Irritable bowel syndrome is a common chronic disorder involving the stomach and intestines, aka the gastrointestinal tract. The most common symptoms are abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation. Only a small number of people with IBS suffer severe symptoms, but severity aside, the symptoms can be very uncomfortable.
“Often, people with IBS have normal bowel movements some days and abnormal ones on other days,” Cleveland Clinic explains. “The type of IBS you have depends on the abnormal bowel movements you experience.”
The types are IBS with constipation (IBS-C, poop that’s hard and lumpy), IBS with diarrhea (IBS-D, poop that’s loose and watery) and IBS with mixed bowel habits (IBS-M, hard and lumpy poop, and loose and watery poop on the same day).
Mayo Clinic says that “other symptoms that are often related include sensation of incomplete evacuation and increased gas or mucus in the stool.”
They also say that the exact cause isn’t known. Factors that may play a role include “muscle contractions in the intestine. Contractions that are stronger and last longer than usual can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea. Weak contractions can slow food passage and lead to hard, dry stools.”
Issues with the nerves in your digestive system may cause poorly coordinated signals between the brain and intestines which causes your body to overreact to changes that typically occur in the digestive process. Another cause could be that IBS developed after you had a severe bout of diarrhea attributed to bacteria or virus.
“People exposed to stressful events, especially in childhood, tend to have more symptoms of IBS,” Mayo says. Or perhaps it’s caused by changes in the gut microbes. “Examples include changes in bacteria, fungi and viruses, which typically reside in the intestines and play a key role in health.”
IBS most often occurs to people in their late teens to early forties. Women are twice as likely to have IBS than men, and, interestingly, it can run in families. People with a history of physical or sexual abuse are also at high risk.
You’ll want to see your primary care provider if you have a persistent change in bowel habits or other symptoms of IBS more than three times a month for more than three months. Some symptoms may indicate a more serious condition, so be sure to see your PCP if you experience unexplained weight loss, diarrhea at night, rectal bleeding, unexplained vomiting or pain that isn’t relieved by passing gas or having a bowel movement.
By the way, IBS is also called irritable colon, spastic colon and nervous stomach since symptoms often occur when you’re feeling emotional stress, tension, and anxiety. And, speaking of stress, it’s one of the top two triggers for IBS, but Mayo says that although stress may make symptoms worse it doesn’t cause them.
The other top trigger is food. “The role of food allergy or intolerance in IBS isn’t fully understood,” Mayo says. “A true food allergy rarely causes IBS. But many people have worse IBS symptoms when they eat or drink certain foods or drink certain beverages. These include wheat, dairy products, citrus fruits, beans, cabbage, milk, and carbonated drinks.”
So, what happens when you’re diagnosed with IBS? Typically, your medico will develop a personalized plan to treat your symptoms that may include recommending medications for your symptoms and having you increase the fiber in your diet, drink more water (up to eight glasses a day), reduce or avoid caffeine, limit cheese and milk while adding calcium-rich foods or a calcium supplement.
Cleveland recommends keeping a food diary to record the foods that cause an episode. They also suggest eating smaller meals more often. And, of course, they say to exercise regularly and not to smoke.
Although IBS will likely be with you for life, it doesn’t shorten your lifespan. IBS is manageable. Cleveland says, “Though there is no cure, you can improve symptoms through diet and lifestyle changes.”
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.