Losing My Shit: Life with Irritable Bowel Syndrome

There is a common disorder of the large intestines called Irritable Bowel Syndrome, otherwise known as IBS.  Some of the symptoms of IBS are cramping, abdominal pain,  gas, bloating,  and diarrhea or constipation, or both.  IBS  is something that must be managed long term, as it is a chronic condition.  However, only a small number of people will have severe symptoms and signs of IBS.  Some people are able to control these symptoms through managing their diet, their lifestyle, and controlling stress.  Those who experience more severe symptoms can  be treated with with  medication and counseling.  Having IBS does not increase people’s chances of having colorectal cancer and it doesn’t cause changes in the bowel tissue.

Common signs of IBS

While the symptoms and/or signs of IBS can vary from person to person, the most common ones are abdominal pain, cramping, or bloating that is usually, or partially relieved after having a bowel movement.  Also, excess gas is very common, and diarrhea or constipation, or alternating bouts of both diarrhea and constipation.  Another common sign is mucus in the stool.  People should consult their physician if they experience a persistent change in their bowel habits or other signs or symptoms of IBS.  These symptoms may indicate a much more serious condition, such as colon cancer.  More serious symptoms can include weight loss, diarrhea at night, rectal bleeding, iron deficiency bleeding, unexplained vomiting, difficulty swallowing, or persistent pain that is not relieved by either passing gas, or having a bowel movement.

While the exact causes of IBS are not yet known, there are several known factors that may play a role. Some of these factors include muscles contractions in the intestines.  The walls of the intestines are lined with many muscles that contract as they move food along the digestive tract. Contractions that are stronger than normal and last longer can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea.

On the other hand, weak intestinal contractions can slow down the passage of food and result in hard, dry stools

Another common factor has to do with the nervous system.  Abnormalities in the nerves in the digestive system can cause people to experience greater than normal discomfort when the abdomen stretches from gas or stool. When there are poorly coordinated signals between the brain and the intestines, this can cause the body to overreact to changes that normally occur during the digestive process, which can then result in pain, diarrhea, or constipation.  Another factor associated with IBS is inflammation in the intestines.  Some people with IBS can have an  increased number of immune-system cells in their intestines, and this immune system response is associated with pain and diarrhea.  An additional factor for IBS is severe infection.  IBS can develop from a bacteria or virus that causes a severe episode of diarrhea, or gastroenteritis.  Also, IBS can be associated with a bacterial overgrowth in the intestines,  which is a surplus of bacteria.  In addition, changes in the bacteria in the gut (microflora) can be a factor. Microflora are the “good” bacteria that live in the intestines and play a key role in overall health.  There is research that indicates that people with IBS have microflora that is different than the microflora in healthy people.

Some of the triggers of IBS are food, stress, and  hormones

While the role of food allergies, or food intolerance in IBS isn’t completely understood, many people with IBS experience worse symptoms when they eat or drink particular foods or beverages, such as wheat, dairy products, citrus fruits, beans, cabbage, milk, and carbonated drinks.  Also, while stress doesn’t necessarily cause IBS, it can greatly aggravate symptoms, and the majority of people with IBS experience worse or more frequent symptoms during times of extreme stress.  Hormones may play a role also, as women are twice as likely  to experience IBS.  Many women find the symptoms of IBS get worse either during, or around the time of their menstrual periods. Some of the risk factors associated with having IBS are as follows: people are more likely to have IBS if they are young, under 50, are female, and have had estrogen therapy before or after menopause, or have a family history of IBS.

Genes may play a role, and shared factors in a family’s environment, or a combination of both genes and environment

Another risk factor appears to be mental health problems. IBS is associated with having depression. anxiety, or other mental health issues.  Finding ways to deal with, or reduce stress may help prevent, or ease the symptoms of IBS.  Counseling, biofeedback, progressive relaxation exercises, and mindfulness training, are some of the techniques that can help reduce stress and ease the symptoms of IBS.