Let’s face it: Bowel habits aren’t on the list of sexy subjects. But these days, they do seem to be a trending topic as many people manage one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
“It is estimated up to 20 percent of adults and children in North America suffer from IBS,” says Dr. Christian Clark, a gastroenterologist at Adult Gastroenterology Associates Inc. in Tulsa. “The signs and symptoms of IBS are quite variable. Typically, patients will describe altered bowel habits (including diarrhea and constipation), abdominal pain and bloating and even extraintestinal symptoms.”
Controlling IBS symptoms includes a healthy, high-fiber diet, avoidance of trigger foods, exercise and management of stressors.
Despite its unpleasant attributes, IBS does not increase a patient’s risk of colon cancer like more serious conditions, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, which are inflammatory bowel diseases. However, to rule out these possibilities, Clark says it’s important to be evaluated by a gastroenterologist.
“IBS is diagnosed after a thorough investigation of the gastrointestinal tract has been undertaken to rule out other types of gastrointestinal disease, and this may include performing a colonoscopy,” he says. “Also, gastroenterologists use specific criteria based on symptoms and diagnostic investigation. Diagnostic testing is based on clinical symptomology.”
Risk factors for IBS, as reported by the Mayo Clinic, include being younger than 45, having a family history of IBS and being female – twice as many women as men are diagnosed. Additionally, individuals diagnosed with mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression, can be disproportionately affected. At this time, the cause of IBS remains unclear.
“The etiology of IBS is not fully understood. Most recently, there has been focus looking into whether intestinal inflammation, alternations in the bacteria of the intestine, food sensitivities/allergies or the way in which the intestines digest food may play a role,” says Clark. “Controlling IBS symptoms includes a healthy, high-fiber diet, avoidance of trigger foods, exercise and management of stressors.
Additionally, medications may be prescribed to treat IBS.”
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the best way to manage IBS is to discover what triggers symptoms, then reduce or remove those causes.
- Establish regular eating habits. Eating at regular times helps regulate your bowels.
- Opt for small, frequent meals instead of larger ones set farther apart. This will ease the amount of food moving through your intestinal tract.
- Eat fiber-rich foods. Try whole fruits, vegetables (including beans) and whole grains, including rolled oats, brown rice and whole wheat bread, but make changes slowly. Fiber helps move food through the intestine, but it takes time for the body to adjust to eating more. Adding too much too quickly may result in gas, bloating and cramping.
- Drink enough fluids. Fiber draws water from the body to move foods through the intestines. Without enough water and fluids, individuals may become constipated.
- Watch what you drink. Alcohol and caffeine can stimulate the intestines; this can cause diarrhea. Artificial sweeteners that contain sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol may cause diarrhea, too. Carbonated drinks can produce gas.
- Identify problem foods and eating habits. Keeping a food diary during flare-ups can help sufferers figure out what they may be eating that’s causing a problem.