Men: Your Digestive Distress Could Be IBS

Irritable Bowel Syndrome Is Not Just a Woman's Problem

Doctor examining man
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Television commercials and magazine ads tend to portray irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as a problem that only women develop. But that's far from the truth. In fact, it could be an unfortunate misperception for men who may be having digestive symptoms caused by IBS but don't get the help they might need simply because they figure something else is going on.

According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD), between 25 million and 45 million people in the United States have IBS, and one out of every three of them is male.

There are very few differences in how men and women experience this disorder. Here's what researchers do know.

The Gender Gap in IBS

IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder (FGID) that causes repeated episodes of severe abdominal cramps or stabbing or radiating pain, along with chronic constipation, frequent bouts of diarrhea, or both. Besides the primary symptoms, IBS sometimes also causes bloating, ​gas, mucus in the stool, and the feeling that a bowel movement was incomplete.

Since these symptoms aren't at all problems that could only affect women, it's not totally clear why IBS so often is considered a female ailment. One reason may be that women simply are more likely to report them—in some areas of the world they're more than three times as likely men to see a doctor for digestive problems.

What's more, advertisers aren't alone in their bias that IBS is a woman's health problem.

Researchers also have been more likely to focus on how the condition affects women than how it affects men, and so in studies, men often are included or there are so few of them to gather much statistically significant information.

Men, Women, and IBS Symptoms

Some research has found differences in the ways men and women experience IBS.

In an analysis of 22 studies of IBS published when 2014, for instance, men with the condition were likely to experience "more severe diarrhea and higher stool frequency" than women. By contrast, women tended to report more symptoms in general, had more extra-intestinal symptoms (things like anxiety, depression, muscle pain, and headaches), and a lower quality of life.

In another study, this one of 577 people with IBS published in 2015, certain symptoms, such as hard stools and bloating, as well as anxiety and a decreased quality of life, were worse for women than for men. But the differences were small. In addition, both sexes had the same degree of other problems, including depression, pain, and frequency of bowel movements.

Gender differences in terms of IBS prevalence appear to decrease with age. The rates of IBS in women begin to dip after the age of 45, a trend that's generally attributed to hormonal changes of menopause. By age 65, the rates of IBS in men and women are thought to be roughly equal.

Male Sex Hormones and IBS

Most of the research on the role of sex hormones in IBS has focused on women, but experts do point out that men have higher levels of androgens. Androgens are natural steroids; testosterone is an androgen.

Research has indicated that higher levels of androgens lower a person's risk of developing a chronic pain disorder and that testosterone, in particular, may serve as a natural pain reliever. This might play into 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 complete understanding of the role of testosterone as a contributor to or protector for IBS symptoms.

In the meantime, if you're a guy and you're having persistent stomach pain or other digestive discomforts, don't discount the possibility that you might be dealing with IBS.

Make an appointment to see your doctor find out if you could be among the 40 percent of people with this complex, disruptive disorder who happen to be male and to get the treatment that will bring you relief.

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.

International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. "Facts About IBS." Nov 24, 2016.

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.