According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, one in five Americans has some symptoms of IBS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome. This makes the condition one of the most common disorders diagnosed today. Statistics like this highlight how common IBS is becoming in the United States. Millions more may have IBS and not be aware they have the condition.

What is IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS is a disorder involving persistent discomfort and concern in those who have it. IBS is characterized by its related symptoms such as abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea and cramping. IBS doe not cause permanent harm to the intestines or lead to more serious conditions such as cancer.

Who Gets IBS?

IBS affects more women than men. Symptoms usually show up between the ages of 35 and 50. There is no cure for IBS, but the symptoms can be brought under control with dietary adjustments, medications and stress management.

Stress and IBS

Stress, a feeling of being mentally or emotionally overwhelmed, angry or anxious, is a contributing factor to IBS. It is important to note that stress does not cause IBS, but it does worsen some of the symptoms. Persistent stress can stimulate colon spasms in those with IBS. The colon is partially controlled by the autonomic nervous system, meaning nerves in the colon are affected by stress.

The “Butterfly” Effect

These specific nerves control the normal contractions of the colon necessary for digestion. When a person is stressed, these contractions become more frequent than necessary. The result is abdominal discomfort. It is very similar to what some people call “butterflies in the stomach” or abdominal cramps.

IBS and the Immune System

Those with IBS may feel discomfort even when they are only slightly upset or nervous due to the heightened sensitivity of these nerve fibers in people with the condition. Some research has suggested a connection between IBS and the immune system, which could explain why stress has such an impact on this disorder. Therefore, stress management is often among the suggested treatments for IBS.

Causes of IBS

A specific cause of IBS has not yet been discovered. Recent research suggests that the condition may be linked to bacterial infection in the gastrointestinal tract. One study on IBS found increased occurrences during a woman’s menstrual cycle. This suggests that reproductive hormones may play a role in aggravating IBS symptoms, accounting for the increased occurrences in women.

Serotonin and IBS

One theory suggests that some people are just naturally more susceptible to stress, meaning their colon is likely to respond with increased contractions resulting in extreme discomfort.
A common and well-tolerated treatment for IBS is anti-depressant drugs. The agents in Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) including fluoxetine and paroxetine, are effective in reducing frequency of symptoms and abdominal discomfort regardless of whether the person is suffering from depression or not. Improvements were seen in stool frequency, abdominal pain, and bloating.

Celiac Disease and IBS

Researchers found that a significant amount of those with IBS also had celiac disease, a condition in which the body cannot digest gluten. People with this disease cannot eat foods such rye or wheat without becoming extremely sick. A blood test is required to determine if this disease is present in those with IBS.

Whatever the cause of IBS is, one thing is certain: IBS is being diagnosed more often today than even just ten years ago. The reason may simply be that many of us do not know how to handle stress or that there are more stressful situations in life today than ever before. Maybe it is a combination of both factors. However, it is safe to say that it is also more important than ever to find better ways to cope with stress.


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