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Did you know that digestive system issues account for more than 37 million physician visits each year and nearly 8 million visits to the emergency department?

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, which affects between 10 and 15 percent of the population, is often the culprit.  However, even though this condition that affects the large intestine is  very common, it remains largely misunderstood.  To better understand what IBS is (and isn’t), here is a short guide debunking some of the most common myths surrounding IBS, so keep reading to learn more.

What Is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a gastrointestinal disorder. It primarily affects the large intestine and can lead to some of the following IBS symptoms:

  • Cramping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

IBS is a chronic functional bowel disorder caused by interruptions between your brain and gut. There are many IBS subtypes, such as IBS-C, IBS-D, and IBS-M.

The letter after IBS stands for the main symptom, such as constipation, diarrhea, and mixed bowels. Patients who have had bacterial infections or diverticulitis may also be more at risk for developing IBS.

Let’s dive into some of the more common myths behind this GI disorder.

1. Stress Leads to IBS

One of the most common myths is that stress directly correlates to IBS. In that case – almost everyone would deal with IBS at one point in their life.

Increased stress leads to a higher release of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. When this happens, your body goes into a fight or flight response and leads to various physical symptoms, such as:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Slower digestive system
  • Insomnia
  • Faster breathing

You can start experiencing increased pain, headaches, and an upset stomach. Often, the symptoms of stress are acute and disappear once the stress resolves. IBS does not function this way, but the symptoms can mimic each other.

Most doctors aren’t sure what causes IBS. However, some likely situations or diagnoses that may trigger IBS include:

  • Mental health illnesses (e.g., depression and anxiety)
  • Bacterial infections
  • Small intestine bacterial overgrowth
  • Food intolerances
  • Genes

What researchers are finding is that stress can worsen IBS symptoms. Recent studies showed that pre-pandemic IBS symptoms were worse than current reports. Avoiding food triggers and self-care played an important role.

2. All IBS Symptoms Are the Same

Not all IBS symptoms are the same. Many experience diarrhea without constipation or have bloating symptoms but not abdominal pain. IBS looks different for everyone, so there is not a single treatment that works across the board.

For many individuals, removing foods that trigger symptoms can help. Modifying your dairy and gluten intake can help some individuals.

Yet, it is essential to remember that lactose intolerance and IBS are not the same. While IBS is a functional bowel disorder, lactose intolerance is an inability to digest dairy products.

3. IBS Only Happens in the Elderly

IBS is actually more common in younger individuals. In North America, it affects up to 15 percent of adults.

Research shows that IBS was 25 percent less likely in individuals over 50. Females are more likely than males to have an IBS diagnosis, with a prevalence of 14 percent.

4. IBS Doesn’t Affect Daily Life

IBS affects day-to-day activities and can lead to poorer quality of life if not treated properly. Many symptoms are prevalent daily and can impact sleep, eating habits and socialization.

Studies show that women with IBS are more likely to have dysmenorrhea (painful menstrual periods), poor eating habits and absenteeism. They also found that these individuals reported higher stress and lower quality of life.

5. IBS Requires Many Tests and Doctor’s Visits

One of the best ways to maintain health and wellness is through a team-based health care approach. That doesn’t mean that IBS will require extensive doctor’s visits and lab tests.

Unfortunately, there is no standardized test for IBS. Physicians may rule out food allergies or celiac disease. Yet, most times, physicians ask about your medical history and symptoms.

After initial assessments and ruling out other conditions, you can consult your health team on managing IBS symptoms. Visiting your primary care physician about IBS is critical.

Your doctor can help detect more serious illnesses, treat your ongoing problems and offer holistic treatments. When physicians work in a team-based approach, they provide you with better access to education programs, specialists and therapy.

Managing IBS Symptoms

Now that you know a few common myths behind IBS, how do you manage IBS symptoms? Most treatments involve identifying lifestyle and dietary triggers.

You can talk to your physician about food allergy tests and rule out other common diagnoses such as lactose or gluten intolerance. Low-FODMAP diets also seem to help. FODMAP stands for low fermented carbs and is often used to treat IBS at this time.

Non-digestible carbs can trigger many symptoms and include foods like wheat, garlic, apples, milk and low-calorie sweeteners. In addition to diet-eliminations, consider timing your meals and watching your portions.

April Is IBS Awareness Month

Did you know that April is IBS awareness month? For many, there seems to be no relief of symptoms, and you may not know where to turn. If dietary and lifestyle modifications aren’t working for you, it may be time to visit a specialist, known as a gastroenterologist. To search for a gastroenterologist near you, be sure to visit Brown & Toland’s Find a Doctor tool.


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If you think you may have a medical emergency, call 911 immediately, call your doctor, or go to the emergency room/urgent care.