IBS Symptoms in Men

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Media coverage and pharmaceutical coverage might make you think that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a woman's health problem. You may be surprised (and perhaps reassured) that that is not the case at all as many men struggle with this complex, disruptive digestive disorder. Actually, it is estimated that approximately 15% of the population have IBS and approximately 40% of those people are male.

In this overview, you will learn about the symptoms of IBS and how those symptoms might be experienced differently between men and women.

What Are the Symptoms of IBS?

IBS is a chronic digestive problem. It is categorized as a functional gastrointestinal disorder (FGID) because no visible physical evidence shows up on standard diagnostic testing to explain its symptoms. IBS is diagnosed when a person experiences repeated episodes of abdominal pain and marked changes in bowel habits for a period of at least six months. Although there may be some differences between men and women as to which symptoms are more likely to be experienced, the symptoms of IBS remain basically the same.

Here are the primary symptoms of IBS:

Here are some symptoms that are often experienced alongside the primary symptoms of IBS:

Rates of IBS in Men versus Women

Unfortunately, it is not just advertisers who suffer from the bias that IBS is a woman's health problem, researchers have also been more likely to focus on women's issues in IBS, rather than men.

Often men are excluded from studies or the numbers of men participants is too low to gain any useful information about IBS in men. Interestingly, this underrepresentation of men in research on IBS and other FGIDs is the exact opposite as to what happens in most other areas of medicine. In spite of this bias, some information regarding differences in IBS symptoms between men and women has emerged.

Although in most areas, the rates of women reporting IBS symptoms is up to three times higher than men, in some places (e.g. Africa, South America, and South Asia) the gap is much smaller or the trend between the two sexes is actually reversed. It is thought that these prevalence differences are probably more likely due to cultural differences in reporting symptoms as opposed to any real difference being due to IBS actually affecting one gender more than the other.

Gender differences in terms of IBS prevalence appear to lessen as individuals age. For women, IBS prevalence begins to decrease after the age of 45 (generally attributed to hormonal changes associated with menopause). By the age of 65, the rates of IBS in men and women are thought to be roughly equal.

Gender Differences in IBS Symptoms

Although the general trend in research has been one of a female-centered bias, some studies have been conducted that shed some light on differences between the two sexes when it comes to experiencing specific IBS symptoms.

A recent meta-analysis, combining the results of 22 studies, found that men were more likely than women to experience "more severe diarrhea and higher stool frequency." Women tended to report more symptoms in general, more extra-intestinal symptoms and to score lower on measures related to quality of life.

Given that, a recent questionnaire study (577 responders), found that although women were more likely than men to experience some symptoms more severely than men (hard stools and bloating), as well as some related symptoms (anxiety and quality of life decreases), such differences were small.

No difference was seen between the two groups in terms of "differences in depression, pain, stool frequency, impact on daily life, dissatisfaction with bowel habit, or extra-colonic symptoms."

Male Sex Hormones and IBS

Although most of the research on the role of sex hormones in IBS has focused on women, there has been some limited discussion of the role of sex hormones on IBS in men. Researchers have taken note of the fact that men have a higher level of androgens. Androgens are natural steroids, with testosterone being one of them. Research has indicated that higher levels of androgens reduce one's risk of developing a chronic pain disorder. Testosterone itself may serve as a natural pain reliever. This might be one of the factors as to why women are more likely to report IBS symptoms than men.

Studies on differences in the levels of testosterone in men with IBS versus healthy men have been very small, limited, and have yielded mixed results. More research is needed before there is a more complete understanding of the role of testosterone as a contributor to or protector for IBS symptoms.

A Word from Verywell

If you are a man and you are experiencing unusual and continuing digestive symptoms, it is important that you don't overlook or minimize your distress based on the media bias of IBS being a female health problem. It is essential that you bring your symptoms to the attention of your doctor so that you can get a definitive diagnosis and develop an effective symptoms management plan.

Sources:

Björkman I, Jakobsson Ung EJ, Ringström G, Törnblom H, Simrén M. "More similarities than differences between men and women with irritable bowel syndrome" Neurogastroenterology & Motility 2015;27(6):796–804.

Canavan C, West J, Card T. "The epidemiology of irritable bowel syndrome." Clinical Epidemiology 2014;6:71-80.

Kim, B., et.al. "Male sex hormones may influence the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in young men." Digestion 2008 78:88-92.

Mulak A, Taché Y, Larauche M. "Sex hormones in the modulation of irritable bowel syndrome. " World Journal of Gastroenterology 2014;20(10):2433-2448.

Thakur ER, Gurtman MB, Keefer L, Brenner DM, Lackner JM. "Gender differences in irritable bowel syndrome: The interpersonal connection" Neurogastroenterology and Motility 2015;27(10):1478-1486.

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