How Symptoms of IBS Can Create a Confusing Condition
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is the most common gastrointestinal disorder seen by doctors. For years it was considered a psychological condition rather than a physical one, but today the medical establishment acknowledges the opposite.
Although IBS has been called by several names, including colitis, mucous colitis, spastic colon, spastic bowel, and functional bowel disease, it is typically defined as a disorder of the intestine that shows no sign of disease that can be seen or measured. According to the FDA, it is second only to the common cold as a cause of missed work days, and it may affect up to 20 percent of Americans – roughly 54 million people.
IBS itself is a syndrome, not a disease, which means that it is a combination of signs and symptoms. It cannot be caught or transmitted from person to person as a cold can, nor can it be cured by an operation or medication, thus making the treatment of IBS rather difficult. Furthermore, IBS is one of the three major ‘functional intestinal disorders, (Dyspepsia and Inflammatory Bowel Disease are the other two) and is a general term for conditions that show no physical evidence or disease in the intestines upon examination, and the cause of which does not show up in a blood test or an x-ray. Because symptoms of IBS vary, the term is often overused. According to the National Digestive Disease Information Clearinghouse, IBS is defined by having:
- Abdominal pain or discomfort for at least 12 weeks out of the previous 12 months (the 12 weeks do not have to be consecutive); and
- The abdominal pain or discomfort has two of the following three features:
- It is relieved by a bowel movement;
- When it begins, there is a change in how often you have a bowel movement; and
- When it begins, there is a change in the form of the stool or the way it looks.
Essentially, IBS is a disturbance in the function of the colon, and sufferers may experience chronic diarrhea or constipation, or alternating bouts of the two.
The colon of an individual with IBS seems more sensitive and reactive than usual, so it responds to stimuli that normally would not bother the average person. Researchers have found that the colon muscle of an IBS sufferer begins to spasm after only mild stimulation.
This stimulation can be caused by numerous factors and can vary from person to person.
The causes of this ‘overly sensitive’ colon result from a number of factors. Some of the following can exacerbate symptoms of IBS: emotional stress, diet, and medication. While these factors usually do not cause gastrointestinal distress in the average person, for an IBS sufferer they can trigger painful abdominal spasms.
The brain and the intestines are closely connected by nerve fibers that control the automatic functioning of the intestinal muscles, and many people may experience nausea or diarrhea when they are nervous or anxious. While we may not be able to control the effects of stress on our intestines, reducing the sources of stress in our lives (high-pressure jobs, family tension, etc.) may alleviate the symptoms of IBS. Expanding on this concept, an expert from the Division of Gastrointestinal and Coagulation Drug Products at the Food and Drug Administration explains that the gut has its own independent nervous system that regulates the processes of digesting food and eliminating solid waste.
According to Marcelo A. Barreiro M.D., “There’s a network of nerve cells within the wall of the gut – the gut nervous system – that does not depend on the brain for its minute-to-minute function,” Barreiro says, but rather “responds to its inputs under various conditions. Under stress, for example, the brain sends conflicting messages to the gut that may exaggerate the irritability of the gut nervous system.”
Diet is another major factor that contributes to the occurrence of IBS. Perhaps the largest diet-related contributor is the lack of fiber. High-fiber diets keep the colon mildly distended, which may help prevent spasms from developing. Some forms of fiber also help keep the stool hydrated, thereby preventing the development of hard stools that are difficult to pass. A good example of this type is flax fiber, which provides a natural balance of soluble and insoluble fiber, which work together to absorb waste and “sweep” it from the intestines. Getting the proper balance of both types of fiber can reduce IBS symptoms by increasing food transit time in the colon for those experiencing constipation and decreasing food transit time for those experiencing diarrhea.
While there is no direct link between IBS and the use of medication, some medications may contribute to IBS. For example, antibiotics are known to cause gastrointestinal problems and diarrhea, and certain steroids may upset the balance of intestinal flora (bacteria in the gut), which can contribute to IBS. Widespread use of both prescribed and over-the-counter medication in the U.S. could be a major cause of many cases of IBS. Instituting a comprehensive maintenance plan is the first step toward overcoming IBS, and one that includes an effective supplementation regimen can greatly reduce symptoms of Irritable Bowel.
The material on this page is for consumer informational and educational purposes only, under section 5 of DSHEA.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this website is intended as, or should be construed as, medical advice. Consumers should consult with their own health care practitioners for individual, medical recommendations. The information in this website concerns dietary supplements, over-the-counter products that are not drugs. Our dietary supplement products are not intended for use as a means to cure, treat, prevent, diagnose, or mitigate any disease or other medical or abnormal condition.