Irritable bowel syndrome sounds like what you might call those fits your cranky boss has when she doesn't have her morning mocha latte. (“Watch out, Charlotte's in full irritable bowel syndrome mode. She just went off on Sam for typing too loudly.”) But it's no joke for those who suffer from IBS.
The thing is, not many know the difference between the occasional upset stomach and all-out IBS, which is a chronic condition. And if you don't know, you can't get help to manage the pain, discomfort, and sometimes embarrassment that can accompany it. Since some experts say the condition tends to pop up when you're in your 20s and 30s, it's time to clear up the BS so you can address the symptoms and never miss another party because you're gassy.
What Is IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome affects the large intestine and is basically a collection of symptoms you may be familiar with: abdominal pain or cramping, bloating, diarrhea or constipation, and/or mucus in your stool. While this condition can be chronic, symptoms are often inconsistent (with either diarrhea or constipation being more predominant) and don’t always appear at the same time, which can make it tricky to know something is up in the first place, says Stephen Wangen, a naturopathic doctor and medical director of the IBS Treatment Center in Seattle. No wonder the number of people with symptoms outnumbers the number of people who get professional help.
IBS affects people of all ages, although it tends to start before 35, perhaps due to the lifestyle shifts that occur as you transition into college and your first jobs, says Mark Larson, M.D., a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic. “In your 20s and 30s, so many things are changing. The anxiety about the future and relationships is much more intense, and your gut takes a hit from all that stress.”
The root causes of IBS, however, are somewhat of a mystery. In addition to stress and other factors that can cause the balance of good and bad gut bacteria to get out of whack, experts believe there may be a connection between IBS and unknown food allergies or intolerances, as some people have more severe symptoms when they eat certain foods.
How to Treat IBS
If you’ve been battling digestive issues at all for three to six months—you don't need to experience symptoms daily or even the same ones—it's time to see a doctor, Larson says. He or she will ask about your woes and may perform some tests such as an endoscopy, an x-ray to look at your intestines, or blood work to figure out if you're dealing with other possible health issues such as ulcertive colitis, Chron's disease, and celiac disease.
While IBS treatment is specific to each individual, experts generally agree on an overall healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet, exercise, proper hydration, and stress management.
Larson recommends yogurt for probiotics (or supplements for those who avoid dairy) to repopulate your gut with “healthy” bacteria. Those suffering from constipation may benefit from eating more fiber, which can help improve bowel function and keep things moving. Exercise of any kind also encourages better circulation and decreases the chances of getting backed up, he says.
Some experts advise going on the FODMAPS diet, which eliminates most fruit, dairy, wheat, beans, and several other foods, but many other experts say the science doesn't justify going on such a restrictive plan. Talk to your doctor to decide what is best for you.
Be sure to drink plenty of water, and if diarrhea is a problem, you may want to avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine, which can exacerbate the issue.
Finally, stress management is huge, Larson says. Try relaxation or deep-breathing techniques, meditation, boxing class—whatever helps you chill.
The Bottom Line
Because IBS shows up in so many different forms, there’s really no one-size-fits all answer for treatment. But that's no reason to stay silent (and gassy, if that's the case—nobody likes SBDs). See a doctor who can help you determine if it's just IBS or something bigger, and from there you can learn how to adapt your diet and lifestyle so you can manage your symptoms.