As medical mysteries go, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) ranks high on the unsolved list. Even though it’s a common malady — 10 to 15 percent of the population suffers from it — there’s no definitive cause and no known cure for this digestive disorder that triggers a host of painful symptoms, including constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas and cramps. High on the list of suspects: gastrointestinal infections and changes in the nerves that control muscle contractions and sensation in the bowel. Women are three times more likely to suffer from IBS than men are; reproductive hormones may play a role, since women’s symptoms tend to worsen during menstrual periods.
In people with irritable bowel syndrome, “the colon is more sensitive than usual and reacts strongly to certain foods, stressful situations and bacteria,” explains Bret A. Lashner, MD, director of the Center for Inflammatory Bowel Disease at the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Gastroenterology. Additionally, the areas of the brain that control bowel movement overrespond when called into action. As a result, the intestines squeeze too hard or not hard enough, causing food to move too quickly or too slowly through the intestines. That’s when pain kicks in.
“If you suspect you have IBS, it’s important to see your doctor and get the best treatment for your symptoms,” Dr. Lashner says. Typically, a diagnosis is made after symptoms have been continuous or recurrent for at least three months and diseases with shared symptoms, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, have been eliminated (unlike Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, IBS doesn’t cause inflammation or increase risk of colon cancer).
While there’s no cure for irritable bowel syndrome, symptoms can be managed through lifestyle changes. Reducing stress, eating a healthy diet and exercising will help you control IBS instead of letting it control you.