Irritable bowel syndrome. The name says it all. More frequently known by its initials, IBS, it’s a common digestive disorder that causes a host of painful symptoms, including constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas and cramps.
There’s no cure for IBS, but the disorder can be controlled and symptoms tamed by recognizing triggers such as diet and stress and learning how to manage them.
The Angry Abdomen
IBS is not a disease but a syndrome — a combination of signs and symptoms. It’s a “functional disorder of the gastrointestinal [GI] tract,” says Bret A. Lashner, MD, director of the Center for Inflammatory Bowel Disease at the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Gastroenterology. That means the bowel doesn’t function the way it’s supposed to, leading to painful symptoms.
“Instead of the normal smooth, wavelike actions of the GI tract, there is a disordered spasm in people with IBS,” Dr. Lashner explains. “These spasms can trap pockets of gas and stool and create abdominal pain and disordered bowel habits.”
Why? Likely suspects include an extreme hypersensitivity of the GI tract to certain stimuli — such as stress, foods or bacteria — and an over-responsiveness of specific areas of the brain that control bowel movements.
Getting diagnosed — and ruling out other possible reasons for your symptoms, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis — is the important first step. Your doctor can help you learn about stress-management techniques, dietary considerations and over-the-counter and prescription drug options. The goal: to take control of your IBS.
Take Steps to Relief
Being physically active is a prescription for most chronic conditions, and IBS is no exception. Regular exercise provides a way to blow off steam and ward off stress. And in the case of IBS, it also helps ease and prevent symptoms. Regular exercise works the bowel muscles and helps return them to a pattern of normal contractions. Exercise also helps ease anxiety and improve mood through the release of endorphins (known as happy hormones).
Plus, exercise can help manage your weight. At least one study has shown that a high body mass index (BMI) and lack of physical activity were associated with an increase in stomach pain, diarrhea, constipation and other IBS symptoms.
If you don’t have an exercise routine, start by taking a brisk 30-minute walk every day. Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer of the Cleveland Clinic, recommends that everyone does this after dinner — no excuses! As you get more fit, add in other activities. Find something you enjoy that doesn’t aggravate your symptoms, and keep at it.