One in five Americans may have it, but doctors know little about its exact causes. It is cited as the second-leading cause of absenteeism in the American workplace. It’s not life-threatening, but its symptoms can be painful and embarrassing, and they may occasionally mimic something more serious. The condition is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), formerly known as Spastic Colon.
A syndrome is a cluster of symptoms that appear together. Although the exact triggers of IBS can’t always be identified, the good news is that a few simple steps, outlined in this booklet, may help manage this condition and decrease the symptoms of IBS.
If you experience lower abdominal pain relieved by moving your bowels… or if you experience changes in the frequency and consistency of bowel movements, it may be a sign of IBS. Signs of IBS can often show up shortly after a meal. In some cases, constipation can alternate with diarrhea. Everyone experiences one or more of these symptoms from time to time. But if you suffer from them frequently over a period of time, consult with your physician.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Your Digestive System
To help understand the symptoms of IBS, let’s take a quick tour of your digestive system. A little information can go a long way in preventing difficulties.
The digestive process begins in your mouth. Your teeth break up the food into small pieces and your saliva mixes with the food, allowing it to pass through the esophagus into the stomach. Using muscular contractions, the esophagus sends food from the mouth to the stomach.
Like a giant processing center, the stomach churns the food into smaller pieces, preparing it to travel on to the lower part of the digestive tract.
After leaving the stomach, the food passes into the small intestine, where the food’s nutrients are further broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream. By the time food passes through all 21 feet of the small intestine and reaches the colon, only water and waste products remain.
Now the colon begins the process of removing waste from the body. Under normal conditions, the colon is very efficient at absorbing excess water from the waste. However, if your colon’s ability to remove waste efficiently is affected, then symptoms of IBS can occur. If transit through the colon is sped up, your waste doesn’t have time to solidify and you experience diarrhea. If it’s slowed down, waste hardens and isn’t passed in a timely fashion; that’s constipation.
Here’s a closer look at some common factors that can aggravate Irritable Bowel Syndrome:
FOOD – Each of us reacts differently to various foods. It’s not just spicy or hard-to-digest foods (greasy, fatty stuff) that can irritate our bowel. Cabbage or beans usually produce gas and, in some of us, that’s more disruptive. But occasional constipation, a frequent symptom of IBS, is often relieved by increasing fiber in the daily diet.
STRESS – The rigors of everyday life may cause headaches, high blood pressure, and insomnia. Doctors do agree that stress is one of the most common triggers of IBS. No matter what you eat, if your mind is preoccupied with pressure, the effects of stress can show up in your digestive tract.
CAFFEINE – Coffee, cola, chocolate, and other foods containing caffeine can stimulate muscles and upset their normal rhythm throwing you off your normal routine.
Should you experience symptoms consistent with IBS, see a doctor. He or she can better determine if you have IBS or something more serious.
You’ll be asked about your medical history … about bowel habits, about your diet, about the stresses and strains on your daily life. The doctor may request a sample of your stool, ask you to undergo a barium enema (or barium X-ray), or suggest a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy to get a better look at your colon and rule out more serious disorders. Based on your medical history and the results of any additional tests, your doctor can determine whether you have IBS.
Many people who suffer from IBS try to ignore its symptoms, or they treat it by taking remedies that only temporarily relieve their discomfort. They would be surprised to learn that, for the most part, they can more successfully manage their symptoms.
DIET – If you and your doctor have determined that certain foods you eat aggravate the symptoms of IBS, he or she may suggest that you eliminate those foods. You may also be eating too much, too fast. Try slowing down at mealtimes; take time to enjoy your food. Eat smaller portions; perhaps break down your eating into segments during the day instead of three huge meals. Whatever change you make in your diet, make it gradually so that your body has time to adjust.
STRESS – Recognizing stress is the first step toward dealing with it. Make a checklist of the things that bother you-whether it’s work, money, or domestic tensions. Often just talking about your problems with a friend, a counselor, or clergyman will help relieve them. Exercise can relieve tension by stretching muscles that store stress. You don’t have to join a health club or buy a home gym; try walking, dancing, or calisthenics. Some people relieve stress through meditation or yoga, relaxation therapy or biofeedback. Talk to your doctor about these methods for some informed input.
MEDICATIONS – Doctors often recommend over-the-counter bulk fiber laxatives or stool softeners for relief of constipation associated with IBS. Research on this symptom suggests that soluble fiber (such as “psyllium”) is preferable to insoluble fiber (such as “wheat bran”). Doctors sometimes will prescribe an anti-spasm medicine, but this is only for short-term usage.
MEDICAL CHECKUPS – Once you seek a physician’s help for IBS, make sure you follow up to monitor your situation.