April Is IBS Awareness Month

Woman holding stomach

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects as many as 20 percent of Americans and yet remains one of the most misunderstood (and, unfortunately, joked about) medical conditions we face today. Although there has been more and more research, the real causes of IBS remain somewhat of a mystery. In fact, there’s still not a tried-and-true way for doctors to make a definitive diagnosis.

Further complicating matters is the fact that IBS offers no single trigger or even unified set of identifying symptoms.

Manifestations of IBS can come and go within a day’s time—or linger for months on end. Sufferers are plagued with extreme physical discomfort as well as embarrassing symptoms, which include diarrhea or constipation, cramping, bloating, excess gas, and mucus in the stool. Those having to deal with IBS might be experiencing just a few symptoms or a plethora of them. Most people with IBS have either diarrhea-predominant IBS or constipation-predominant IBS (while some alternate between the two).

What’s more, the symptoms of IBS are also common to other diseases. Thus concluding a diagnosis to be IBS is often lengthy and usually involves a fair amount of guesswork (yes, even for medical professionals). Doctors will likely want to rule out all other possible disorders (including Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and celiac disease) through physical examination, blood tests, ultrasound, bowel X-rays and sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy.

If no other problems are diagnosed, IBS “wins” by default. Once you have a diagnosis, you and your doctor can work together to find a treatment plan that provides some relief.

The good news is that IBS can be managed with appropriate diet and lifestyle changes—possibly along with medications or behavioral therapy.

And although IBS can be uncomfortable (and has no known “cure”), it also won’t likely progress into anything more serious.

Food Mood

Identifying foods that trigger IBS can be a challenge. Even people who don’t suffer from IBS can have a gastrointestinal reaction to certain foods every now and then (and yes, this is perfectly normal). People with IBS, however, have a heightened sensitivity to foods, and this can require the need to severely limit what they eat.

Can a Low-FODMAP Diet Help?

FODMAP stands for “fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.” FODMAPs are a group of carbohydrates that are often poorly digested in the intestine and can cause extreme digestive upset when fermented by gut bacteria. While many of us often break down certain FODMAPs poorly, some are particularly sensitive, especially those who suffer from IBS.

If you decide to go the FODMAP route, working with a registered dietitian and/or physician is the best way to go. Determining whether or not you have sensitivity to certain foods (or even specific amounts of certain foods) can be very complex.

What IBS Is Not

Many confuse IBS for IBD, which stands for inflammatory bowel disease. Although IBD and IBS both affect the intestines and can cause similar symptoms, they are very different conditions.

IBD refers to a cluster of disorders—the two major types being Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both are chronic conditions characterized by inflammation of the intestines, which results from the body’s impaired immune response. Treatment for IBD may require strong medications to suppress inflammation and sometimes even surgery. 

By Joy Bauer, MS, RDN, CDN, Health and Nutrition Expert for NBC’s Today Show and founder of Nourish Snacks. Joy’s latest book is From Junk Food to Joy Food.

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