What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome? Understanding the Causes and Symptoms

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a type of gastrointestinal (GI) disorder characterized by chronic abdominal pain, diarrhea, and/or constipation. It affects about 15 percent of the population in America, and has become more common in recent years.

IBS is one of the most common GI disorders, and its symptoms can sometimes be overwhelming. But this article will focus on helping you know the difference between IBS and other GI problems, as well as what you can do to relieve your symptoms. Read on to learn more about IBS.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome - What Is It?

Facts About Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder characterized by abdominal pain or discomfort, and altered bowel habit (chronic or recurrent diarrhoea, constipation, or both – either mixed or in alternation).

Irritable Bowel Syndrome affects between 25 and 45 million people in the United States. About 2 in 3 IBS sufferers are female. About 1 in 3 IBS sufferers are male. IBS affects people of all ages, even children.

It’s usually a lifelong condition, which makes it very frustrating to live with as it can have a big impact on your everyday life. The exact cause of the condition is unknown, but it has been linked to things like food passing through the gut too quickly or too slowly, by oversensitive nerves within the gut, by stress and if there’s a family history of IBS.

IBS is also known as spastic colon, irritable colon, mucous colitis and also spastic colitis. It is a completely different disorder to inflammatory bowel disease, and it’s not related to any other bowel conditions.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a group of intestinal symptoms which typically occur together, and the symptoms vary in their severity and duration from one person to the next. However they do last at least three months for at last three days per month to be regarded as being IBS.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome - What Is It?

IBS Symptoms

  • Stomach pain or cramps – which is usually worse after eating, and relieved after using the toilet.
  • Bloating – your stomach may feel uncomfortably full and swollen.
  • Diarrhoea – you may have watery diarrhoea and sometimes need to use the toilet very suddenly.
  • Constipation – it may feel like you cannot empty your bowels fully, and can be difficult to go to the toilet.
  • Flatulence.
  • Passing mucus in your stools.
  • Fatigue and a lack of energy.
  • Nausea.
  • Back pain.
  • Problems urinating – such as needing to often pee, sudden pee urges and feeling like you cannot fully empty your bladder.
  • Incontinence.
  • Symptoms can disappear and become better, or are triggered by food or drink.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome - What Is It

Getting Diagnosed

When you visit your GP, they will ask you a number of questions such as asking which symptoms you’ve been suffering with, if they come and go, how often you get your symptoms, when you get them (for example after eating specific foods) and how long you’ve had them.

It may be a good idea to write your symptoms down in a diary to show your doctor, so they can see if there’s an obvious pattern to your symptoms.

There is no specific test for diagnosing irritable bowel syndrome, and it’s usually the case that doctors will rule out more other, more sinister conditions first before diagnosing IBS.

Your GP is likely to take a blood test, so they can check if you have any vitamin deficiencies, or signs of inflammation which could be the cause of your symptoms.

They can also rule out conditions like celiac disease. They might also ask for a stool sample to check for infections and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Your doctor might refer you to a gastroenterologist, so they can carry out further tests, and decide on the diagnosis. It’s not a quick condition to diagnose, but once you have been diagnosed, there are medicines and steps you can take to try and alleviate or minimize symptoms.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome - What Is It

NHS Tips to Relieve IBS Symptoms

There’s no single diet or medicine that works for everyone with IBS. But there are lots of things that can help if you have been diagnosed with it.


  • Cook homemade meals using fresh ingredients when you can
  • Keep a diary of what you eat and any symptoms you get – try to avoid things that trigger your IBS
  • Try to find ways to relax
  • Get plenty of exercise
  • Try probiotics for a month to see if they help


  • Do not delay or skip meals
  • Do not eat too quickly
  • Do not eat lots of fatty, spicy or processed foods
  • Do not eat more than 3 portions of fresh fruit a day (a portion is 80g)
  • Do not drink more than 3 cups of tea or coffee a day
  • Do not drink lots of alcohol or fizzy drinks

Mild signs and symptoms can often be controlled by managing stress and by making changes in your diet and lifestyle. Try to:

  • Avoid foods that trigger your symptoms
  • Eat high-fiber foods
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Exercise regularly
  • Get enough sleep

Your doctor might suggest that you eliminate from your diet:

  • High-gas foods. If you experience bloating or gas, you might avoid items such as carbonated and alcoholic beverages, caffeine, raw fruit, and certain vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower.
  • Gluten. Research shows that some people with IBS report improvement in diarrhoea symptoms if they stop eating gluten (wheat, barley and rye) even if they don’t have celiac disease.
  • FODMAPs. Some people are sensitive to certain carbohydrates such as fructose, fructans, lactose and others, known as FODMAPs — fermentable oligo-, di-, and monosaccharides and polyols. FODMAPs are found in certain grains, vegetables, fruits and dairy products. Your IBS symptoms might ease if you follow a strict low-FODMAP diet and then reintroduce foods one at a time.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome - What Is It?

Mediciations for Treating IBS
  • Alosetron (Lotronex). Alosetron is designed to relax the colon and slow the movement of waste through the lower bowel. Alosetron can be prescribed only by doctors enrolled in a special program, is intended for severe cases of diarrhea-predominant IBS in women who haven’t responded to other treatments, and isn’t approved for use by men. It has been linked to rare but important side effects, so it should only be considered when other treatments aren’t successful.
  • Eluxadoline (Viberzi). Eluxadoline can ease diarrhea by reducing muscle contractions and fluid secretion in the intestine, and increasing muscle tone in the rectum. Side effects can include nausea, abdominal pain and mild constipation. Eluxadoline has also been associated with pancreatitis, which can be serious and more common in certain individuals.
  • Rifaximin (Xifaxan). This antibiotic can decrease bacterial overgrowth and diarrhea.
  • Lubiprostone (Amitiza). Lubiprostone can increase fluid secretion in your small intestine to help with the passage of stool. It’s approved for women who have IBS with constipation, and is generally prescribed only for women with severe symptoms that haven’t responded to other treatments.
  • Linaclotide (Linzess). Linaclotide also can increase fluid secretion in your small intestine to help you pass stool. Linaclotide can cause diarrhoea, but taking the medication 30 to 60 minutes before eating might help.

If you have experienced abdominal pain for more than three months, or if you have diarrhea or constipation that lasts for more than three weeks, you may have irritable bowel syndrome.

You can also have IBS without experiencing abdominal pain. The symptoms can be uncomfortable, and may include bloating, diarrhea, constipation, pain, and more.

The best way to know if you have IBS is to schedule an appointment with your doctor. The causes of IBS are not fully understood, but they may include a combination of factors, including the nervous system, immune system, and the gastrointestinal tract.

If you have IBS, you may be able to ease your symptoms by eating a high-fiber diet, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding foods that cause pain. Your doctor can recommend the right treatment for you.

Articles I recommend reading for more information; MayoClinic and HealthLine.

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