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Irritable Bowel Syndrome: 9 Symptoms and Risk Factors You Need to Know

How to know when common constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, or abdominal pain may be a symptom of a more serious digestive issue.

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When you’re one of the 20 per cent

Most of us have experienced some mild gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort, such as gas, bloating, pain in the lower belly, and constipation or diarrhea. When it comes to the latter two, the cause might be attributed to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). When does occasional constipation or diarrhea cross over into IBS territory? IBS, like most “syndromes” is a “diagnosis” that can read like a laundry list of symptoms, but no one can pinpoint the actual cause. IBS affects up to 20 per cent of the adult North American population. Here are some symptoms and risk factors—and 10 more stomach pains you should never ignore.

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IBS symptom: You feel discomfort in your belly

For some, a key tip-off to an IBS diagnosis is lower abdominal pain occurring on and off for a few months—but only if it’s accompanied by bowel changes, such as diarrhea or constipation or both, says Eamonn M. M. Quigley, MD, co-director of the Lynda K. and David M. Underwood Center for Digestive Disorders at Houston Methodist Hospital. There’s an impressive amount of evidence accruing that a gut dysbiosis, or disturbed intestinal ecology, is at the root of IBS. Correspondingly, manipulation of gut bacteria—by taking probiotics, prebiotics, and either specialized antibiotics or herbal antimicrobials—represents promising new treatment. Don’t miss these tips for maintaining healthy gut flora.

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IBS risk factor: You’re a woman under age 50

For unknown reasons, women sufferers outnumber men two to one, a ratio that holds across a wide range of countries. The form of IBS tends to differ by sex, as well. “Women are more likely to experience constipation and bloating, while men are more likely to have diarrhea,” Dr. Quigley says. Irritable bowel syndrome becomes less common after people reach their 50s. “Whether that’s due to the hormonal changes of menopause, or alterations in the gut bacteria that come with age, or something else connected to aging, no one knows,” says Dr. Quigley. Learn which triggers you should be avoiding if you have irritable bowel syndrome.

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IBS symptom: You experience gastric distress when you eat FODMAPs

What do avocados, lentils, bread, milk, garlic, and soda sweetened with high fructose corn syrup have in common? They contain carbohydrates known as FODMAPs, which can trigger G.I. symptoms in people with IBS (and others, as well). “FODMAPs are osmotic—they pull water into the intestinal tract. They may not be digested or absorbed well and could be fermented upon by bacteria in the intestinal tract when eaten in excess,” according to the Digestive Health Center Nutrition Services of Stanford University Medical Center. “When bacteria ferment these carbohydrates, they produce gas, which is irritating to sensitive people,” Dr. Quigley notes. There are five categories of FODMAPs and you can have a problem with one but not another. One way to test your sensitivity is to try a diet that restricts FODMAPs. A Low-FODMAP diet has been successful in relieving IBS symptoms in many people. These are the foods that might be making your digestive issues worse.

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IBS risk factor: You had unexplained abdominal pain when you were young

A subset of IBS sufferers—one study says 30 to 40 per cent—may have had functional abdominal pain as children. Functional abdominal pain is “abdominal pain that cannot be explained by any visible or detectable abnormality after a thorough physical examination and appropriate further testing if needed,” according to the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG). It’s quite common. “Almost a quarter of all children seen for stomach or intestinal complaints have functional abdominal pain,” the ACG adds. Having experienced this pain in childhood, you may have developed sensitivity and react strongly to stimulation (such as bloating due to excess gas) inside the large intestine. If your childhood was relatively stomachache free, a similar hypersensitivity could have been sparked by other factors, including a previous infection in the GI tract, for example, due to food poisoning. Learn the four best natural supplements for digestion.

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IBS symptom: You’re suffering from fatigue

“Fatigue is a common symptom of irritable bowel syndrome,” says Dr. Quigley. While doctors don’t know the exact reason, some patients with irritable bowel syndrome show signs of body-wide inflammation, that can cause muscle and joint aches and pains and disrupt neurotransmitters, causing brain fog and sleep disruption. “People who don’t suffer from IBS often underestimate how the condition impairs quality of life,” Dr. Quigley notes. Believe it or not, this one food can help you fall asleep—and boost your IQ.

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IBS risk factor: You took a lot of antibiotics when you were a kid

The GI tract is host to trillions of bacteria, both good and bad, that perform important functions, such as digesting otherwise indigestible carbohydrates (including FODMAPs) and aiding in the production of vitamins, like D, K, and B. (These are the 13 essential vitamins your body needs to stay healthy.) A good balance of bacteria in the gut is crucial for the optimal functioning of the immune system. According to Dr. Quigley, epidemiological evidence suggests that antibiotic use in childhood is connected to the later development of IBS. “The theory is that the antibiotics caused changes in the gut microbiome that are relevant to IBS,” he says.

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IBS risk factor: You’re stressed out

Your stomach fills with butterflies at the anticipation of public speaking. Or your digestive system shuts down when you’re having a disagreement with your partner or are under the gun at work. The connection between the digestive system and brain is known as the gut-brain axis (GBA). The microbes of the gut microbiota interact with the GBA in several ways, but two important ones have to do with stress. (Don’t miss the eight silent signs you’re under stress.) The vagus nerve that runs the length of our body carries feedback from the gut to the areas of the brain that handle emotions and the brain in turn sends signals back to the gut about whether to flee or fight. When stress becomes an everyday thing it can alter intestinal permeability, leading to leaky gut syndrome. Stress can be a major trigger for symptoms, Dr. Quigley says. For a small segment of people, past stress may also play a role. “A higher than expected percent of people with IBS have a history of childhood trauma such as the death of a parent or sexual abuse,” notes Dr. Quigley. Childhood trauma, in effect, can rewire the gut-brain axis. Make sure you master these 37 stress management tips from the experts.

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IBS risk factor: You suffer from fibromyalgia

“Fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory, and mood issues. Researchers believe that fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way your brain processes pain signals,” notes the Mayo Clinic. Fibromyalgia also happens to be more common in women than breast cancer. According to Dr. Quigley, 50 to 60 per cent of fibromyalgia patients also have irritable bowel syndrome. However, only 5 per cent of IBS patients also suffer from fibromyalgia. Watch out for these 11 diseases doctors are most likely to miss.

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IBS risk factor: Some members of your family have IBS

“It’s very common to see familial trends in IBS. If your mother, sister, and aunt have IBS, you might have it, too,” Dr. Quigley says. “But a clear genetic pattern hasn’t been found.” Studies have shown that we share microbiota with family members who live with us. “Is there a genetic pattern we can’t detect yet or are environmental factors at work?” The American Gut Project may soon hold some answers. Next, brush up on the best home remedies for indigestion.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest