What is wrong with your stomach?
You were out with your friends and had a great dinner. Now, that you’re home, you noticed that your feel bloated, your stomach is cramping and you’re passing a lot of gas. As you are dealing with the discomfort, you realize that this has been happening more and more frequently. You begin to wonder is there something wrong with your stomach. Should you see a doctor? What can you do to stop this from occurring?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a fairly common disorder in which the large intestines are not functioning optimally. It is a chronic condition, but doesn’t cause changes to the bowel tissue or increase your risk for colorectal cancer like other conditions, such as Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease (both of these are forms of inflammatory bowel disease). Typically, you experience abdominal pain/cramping with a bloated feeling, pass gas frequently, alternate between having diarrhea versus constipation and notice mucus in your stool. Sometimes, the symptoms are worse than others. The symptoms cover a wide range because the cause of IBS varies. It is thought to be connected to the muscles that line the walls of your intestinal tract. They are supposed to contract and relax in a synchronized rhythm to help the food you eat move from your stomach through your intestines to your rectum. When these contractions are stronger and last longer than normal, they can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea. When these contractions are weaker and slower than normal, they can cause constipation. Each person is different, but most likely something triggers it. Certain types of food (chocolate, spices, fats, fried, fruits, beans, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, milk, carbonated beverages, alcohol), stress, hormones (women find symptoms are worse around menstrual cycle) and having another illness (gastroenteritis—stomach bug) can act as a trigger or aggravate symptoms.
IBS treatment is focused on treating the symptoms. The biggest, and most effective, is to change dietary habits. In an effort to figure out what your triggers are, start by eliminating certain foods one at a time to see how your symptoms respond when you do. These foods include high-gas foods (carbonated beverages, raw fruits, vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower), foods containing gluten (wheat, barley, rye) and FODMAPS, which stands for fermentable oligo-, di-, and monosaccharides and polyols, basically carbohydrates like fructose, fructans, lactose and others (they are found in certain grains, vegetables, fruits and dairy products). It is also important to take fiber supplements to help regulate your bowel function. If you are having diarrhea, you can take anti-diarrheal medication. If you are having constipation, you can take laxatives. It is important to remember with either of these to be careful when using them because too much of one could cause you to have the opposite problem.
In order to prevent IBS or an IBS flare-up, it is essential to manage your diet by avoiding foods that cause your stomach to be irritated. Finding the right amount of fiber to add to your diet on a daily basis is key. It is important to eat at regular times, drink plenty of liquids (especially water) and to exercise regularly. All of these will help to regulate your bowel function. Another thing to manage is stress. While stress many not bring on symptoms, it has a tendency to aggravate them. It has been found that people who are prone to depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, are at increased risk for having IBS. The best way to help manage this is to get counseling and, if prescribed medication for any of these, to take them.
IBS is uncomfortable to live with at a minimum and sometimes incredibly painful and inconvenient. The good news is there are ways to manage it and keep it under control. If you have any questions about IBS, please speak with your doctor. If you would like further information, please visit the American Gastrological Association’s page on IBS at https://www.gastro.org/practice-guidance/gi-patient-center/topic/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs