Understanding The Cause Of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

April 23, 2021
Understanding The Cause Of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

It is estimated that between 3-20% of Americans experience Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) symptoms. Some people with IBS have minor symptoms. However, for others, the symptoms are significant and disrupt daily life.

As our continued efforts to help raise awareness during Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Month, let us examine further to better understand the cause and health effects attributed to IBS.


Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is an uncomfortable gastrointestinal disorder that can affect your large intestine, also known as your colon. It can cause a plethora of uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing symptoms, from bloating and gas to constipation and diarrhea.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is also known as spastic colon, irritable colon, mucous colitis, and spastic colitis. It is a separate condition from inflammatory bowel disease and isn’t related to other bowel conditions. IBS is a group of intestinal symptoms that typically occur together. The symptoms vary in severity and duration from person to person. However, they last at least three months for at least three days per month.

IBS can cause intestinal damage in some cases. However, that is not common. IBS doesn’t increase your risk of gastrointestinal cancers, but it can still have a significant effect on your life.


Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can affect both men and women. Common symptoms in both sexes include:

  • An increase or decrease in the number of bowel movements
  • Stools that are more watery, hard, lumpy, or contain mucus
  • Diarrhea, constipation, or alternation between the two
  • A feeling that bowel movements are incomplete
  • Abdominal bloating, cramping, gas, or pain
  • Heartburn
  • Feeling uncomfortable or nauseous after eating a meal
  • Frequent bathroom emergencies
  • Symptoms that get worse after meals

Frequent bathroom breaks, pain, and general discomfort can make it harder for you to function at work, at home, and in any social situation. Both men and women with IBS report feelings of depression, stress, and isolation. Some researchers suggest that due to hormonal differences, the male gut may be less sensitive to the symptoms of IBS. Or perhaps men just simply avoid seeking help for IBS. It’s still unclear whether women experience more flare-ups during menstruation and pregnancy.


Studies suggest that the colon gets hypersensitive, overreacting to mild stimulation. Instead of slow, rhythmic muscle movements, the bowel muscles spasm. That can cause diarrhea or constipation. Some think that IBS happens when the muscles in the bowels don’t squeeze normally, which affects the movement of stool. Another theory suggests it may involve chemicals made by the body, such as serotonin and gastrin, that control nerve signals between the brain and digestive tract. Other researchers are studying to see if certain bacteria in the bowels can lead to the condition.


There are no specific lab tests that can diagnose IBS. Your doctor will see if your symptoms match with the definition of IBS, and they may run tests to rule out conditions such as:

  • Food allergies or intolerances, such as lactose intolerance and poor dietary habits
  • Medications such as high blood pressure drugs, iron, and certain antacids
  • Infection
  • Enzyme deficiencies where the pancreas isn’t releasing enough enzymes to properly digest or break down food
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease
  • Your doctor may do some of the following tests to decide if you have IBS:
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy to look for signs of blockage or inflammation in your intestines
  • Upper endoscopy if you have heartburn or indigestion
  • X-rays
  • Blood tests to look for anemia (too few red blood cells), thyroid problems, and signs of infection
  • Stool tests for blood or infections
  • Tests for lactose intolerance, gluten allergy, or celiac disease
  • Tests to look for problems with your bowel muscles


Nearly all people with IBS can get help, but no single treatment works for everyone. You and your doctor will need to work together to find the right treatment plan to manage your symptoms. Many things can trigger IBS symptoms, including certain foods, medicines, the presence of gas or stool, and emotional stress. You’ll need to learn what your triggers are. You may need to make some lifestyle changes and take medication.


Usually, with a few basic changes in diet and activities, IBS will improve over time. Here are some tips to help ease symptoms:

  • Avoid caffeine (in coffee, tea, and soda).
  • Add fiber to your diet with foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts.
  • Drink at least three to four glasses of water per day.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Learn to relax, either by getting more exercise or by reducing stress in your life.
  • Limit how much milk or cheese you eat.
  • Eat smaller meals more often instead of big meals.
  • Keep a record of the foods you eat so you can figure out which foods bring on bouts of IBS.

Common food “triggers” are red peppers, green onions, red wine, wheat, and cow’s milk. If you’re concerned about getting enough calcium, you can try to get it from other foods, like broccoli, spinach, turnip greens, tofu, yogurt, sardines, salmon with bones, calcium-fortified orange juice, bread, or calcium supplements.


If you experience persistent abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, or mucus in your stool, make an appointment with your doctor. These symptoms may be a sign of IBS, a condition that can affect your large intestine. They may also be caused by other conditions, such as a gastrointestinal infection or even colon cancer.

Your doctor can help identify the cause of your symptoms and recommend a treatment plan. Remember, If you have IBS you may be able to control your symptoms with a few lifestyle changes.


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