Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder affecting about one in five American adults. It commonly involves a variety of symptoms, including abdominal pain, cramping or bloating, excessive passing of gas, diarrhea or constipation--sometimes occurring in alternating bouts and with mucus in the stool. And if all that's not uncomfortable enough, you also get to describe these symptoms to your doctor. (Really, don't be shy. It's for your health and we've heard it all before.)
No one really knows what causes IBS. The muscular walls of the intestinal tract contract in an uncoordinated way either speeding up the transit of food (leading to diarrhea) or slowing it down (leading to constipation and gas). These aren't very ladylike symptoms, but unfortunately younger women are twice as likely to have IBS! For 50 percent of people, IBS begins before age 35.
It's important to see your doctor if you have a persistent change in bowel habits or if you have any other signs or symptoms of IBS, because these may be an indication of a more serious condition. There are no findings when your doctor performs a physical exam or diagnostic tests that confirm the diagnosis of IBS, so the only way to assess the condition is with full disclosure of your signs and symptoms.
While there is no cure for IBS, there are treatments that focus on minimizing the symptoms and preventive measures including dietary and lifestyle changes. For example:
- Limit or eliminate foods that may make diarrhea worse, including caffeine, alcohol, milk products, foods high in sugar, fatty foods, gas-producing foods (such as beans, cabbage and broccoli) and the artificial sweeteners sorbitol and xylitol (often used in sugarless gum and sugarless candy).
- To reduce constipation, add fiber to your diet, drink plenty of water and get regular exercise.
- Large meals can cause cramping and diarrhea, so eating smaller meals more often, or eating smaller portions, may help IBS symptoms.
- Keep a food journal. Record everything you've eaten each time you have a bout of IBS symptoms. Try this for at least a month to give you enough information to determine possible triggers.
For more information about irritable bowel syndrome click here.