Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a fairly common disorder capable of wreaking havoc on the body in a number of ways. However, a little knowledge can go a long way in combating it.

As it happens, April is Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Month. First designated by the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, the observance is devoted to spreading important information regarding IBS diagnosis, treatment and quality of life issues.

IBS can best be described as a long-term or recurrent disorder of gastrointestinal functioning, often involving intestinal motility, that results in abdominal pain, cramping, bloating and changes in bowel habits. Variously referred to over the years as spastic bowel/colon, nervous colon and mucous colon, IBS can be classified as IBS-D (diarrhea), IBS-C (constipation) and IBS-M (mixed).

Often, these changes in GI motility are augmented by stress via the gut-brain axis, leading to alterations in serotonin metabolism. Because of this, IBS is commonly called a gut-brain disorder, with several conditions linked to its development, including a stressful and difficult early life, mental health disorders, GI tract infections, bacterial overgrowth of the GI tract, food intolerances or sensitivities and genetic factors.

About 12% of the U.S. population suffers from IBS, with women twice as likely as men to have it. Unfortunately, many people go through their lives without realizing they have IBS, despite experiencing its myriad symptoms.

Because there is no definitive test for IBS, it is typically a diagnosis of exclusion once a careful history, physical examination and series of tests rule out other conditions such as celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease. It’s crucial to get a correct diagnosis, as sometimes colon cancer can present with constipation, so make it a point to discuss these symptoms with your physician. A visit with a gastroenterologist is also necessary, especially if other red flag symptoms such as rectal bleeding, anemia, weight loss, etc., are present. In many cases, both an upper endoscopy and a colonoscopy will be needed to rule out other serious conditions.

Fortunately, we are increasingly finding new and better ways to treat IBS. Here at The Wright Center for Community Health, that approach falls under the banner of our Lifestyle Medicine Program, which seeks to help individuals and families enhance their health and quality of life by improving diet, increasing physical activity, reducing stress and getting more sleep, as well as having increased access to mental health therapies, probiotics and medications tailored to specific symptoms.

With IBS, there’s now a particular focus on nutrition-based interventions, with the most recent dietary recommendations involving the use of a low-FODMAP diet, which stands for “low fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols.”

Studies show that a low-FODMAP diet significantly improves general symptoms in IBS patients by limiting the amount of poorly absorbed fermentable carbohydrates that can cause increases in water content in the bowel, the osmotic effect and gas production by colon bacteria. Indeed, the diet has the potential to be a real first-line therapeutic approach in improving abdominal discomfort, abdominal pain, bloating and overall quality of life for IBS patients.

That said, low-FODMAP can cause negative alterations of gut microbiota and possible inadequate nutrient intake, so it’s important for patients to speak with a registered/licensed dietitian-nutritionist before implementing the diet. Also, a thorough discussion of food types included and excluded in low-FODMAP is essential in order to successfully eliminate high-FODMAP foods.

IBS is a serious chronic disease, but a proactive strategy can considerably mitigate its effects. So, if you feel like you’re experiencing symptoms consistent with IBS, give your physician a call so that you can eventually give your body some much-needed relief.

Hemant Goyal, M.D., FACP, a gastroenterologist-in-training and doctor of internal medicine, is the chief fellow for The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education’s Gastroenterology Fellowship. Walter Wanas, LDN, a registered and licensed dietitian and nutritionist, is director of lifestyle modification and preventive medicine for The Wright Center for Community Health’s Lifestyle Medicine Program.

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