What is IBS? Canadian dietitian Lauren Renlund explains

21 September 2021

 What is IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a very common digestive disorder. While the symptoms are not life threatening, they can be uncomfortable, frustrating and even embarrassing. When someone is diagnosed with IBS, it essentially means the gut is medically healthy but not working ideally. There is no cure for IBS, but there are many ways to help manage symptoms and feel good! 

IBS Symptoms

Symptoms of IBS may include

○ Altered bowel movements (constipation or diarrhoea)

○ Bloating (feeling of pressure in the abdomen)

○ Distention (increase in size of the abdomen)

○ Pain or cramping

○ And gas/passing wind 

Every person with IBS may have different digestive symptoms. No two guts are the same! Symptoms may vary day to day and change in intensity. It’s important to note that blood in the stool is not a typical symptom of IBS. If you notice blood in your stool, talk to your doctor.

What Causes IBS

You may be wondering, what causes IBS? The truth is, we don’t know the exact cause of IBS yet. What we do know is that IBS often involves changes in gut sensitivity, motility and microbiome. 

Hypersensitivity in the abdomen is common in IBS, which means that the nerves are extra sensitive to sensations like pain. There are often motility changes in the gut – aka food moves too fast or too slow through the intestines, which leads to constipation or diarrhea. Finally, researchers are just starting to learn about the connection between health and the bacteria that live in intestines. People with IBS sometimes have changes to their gut microbiome, but we don’t know exactly how those changes are related to IBS yet.

Diagnosis

In order to get diagnosed with IBS, you must talk to your doctor. A physician can rule out any other digestive disorders such as inflammatory bowel diseases, celiac disease and cancer. A diagnosis of IBS is based on frequency and type of symptoms. There are no blood tests or breath tests that can diagnose IBS. Watch out for companies selling these types of tests promising diagnoses! Those tests are typically expensive and inaccurate.

IBS Subtypes

There are four subtypes of IBS that are determined by bowel movement type. Treatment may vary based on the IBS subtype:

○ IBS-C (Constipation)

○ IBS-D (Diarrhoea)

○ IBS-M (Mixed constipation and diarrhoea) 

○ IBS-U (Unclassified; does not fit into the other groups)

IBS Treatment

There is no cure for IBS. It is a chronic condition that requires ongoing symptom management. Be very sceptical of anyone who tries to sell you an easy “cure” for IBS. Even without a cure, people with IBS can learn how to manage symptoms and feel great again. You don’t have to suffer with symptoms alone. Talk to your doctor or dietitian to learn more about medications, supplements, therapies and diets for IBS. 

There are many ways nutrition can help manage IBS symptoms. The Low FODMAP Diet is a popular and evidence-based diet for managing IBS symptoms and identifying food triggers. There is high quality research to show that the diet works for 70% or more of people with IBS. Ideally the diet is meant to be followed for a short time with the help of a registered dietitian. 

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