IBD vs. IBS: What’s the Difference?

Find out how inflammatory bowel disease symptoms differ from irritable bowel syndrome, and the latest treatments for this chronic condition.

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Inflammatory bowel disease symptoms

Inflammation evolved for a reason: it’s part of the body’s way of fighting off pathogens. But sometimes, for reasons that are not quite understood, that natural response runs amok, causing chronic inflammatory diseases. These ailments can affect different areas, including ones we often avoid in polite conversation. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is the umbrella term for conditions that involve chronic swelling in the digestive tract. There are two main varieties: ulcerative colitis, which results from inflammation and ulcers in the lining of the colon and rectum; and Crohn’s disease, which is when swollen patches occur in the tissue that lines any part of the digestive tract. In general, inflammatory bowel disease symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloody stool, fatigue and weight loss.

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Understanding IBS vs. inflammatory bowel disease symptoms

Despite the resemblance between their names, IBD is not the same as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a more common but less serious health condition. The two share certain symptoms, but IBS does not involve inflammation or any visible changes to the digestive tract.

Watch out for these common IBS triggers.

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How to treat IBD

IBD is a lifelong disease, usually starting in early adulthood. Patients face symptoms that come and go (flares, remissions) and, on occasion, social stigma due to a lack of understanding about IBD. Inflammation-fighting medications can shorten and reduce the intensity of flares. For Crohn’s patients, surgically removing or bypassing the damaged areas can provide long-term relief, though the disease may return to attack previously unaffected tissue. For colitis, the most common procedure is replacing the colon and rectum with synthetic substitutes, which is typically a permanent cure.

Find out 20 symptoms you should never ignore.

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The rise of IBD in Canada

In decades past, Canada had a relatively low occurrence of IBD compared to similar Western countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States. But since the 1980s, IBD’s prevalence has grown faster here than it has elsewhere. In fact, according to Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, we now have one of the highest rates in the world. As of 2021, 260,000 Canadians were living with the condition.

Don’t miss these pro tips on how to heal your gut.

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What causes IBD?

So far, the exact causes of IBD remain unknown. Although there is evidence of genetic risk factors, most sufferers don’t have a family history. The Canadian-born children of immigrants from various regions with low IBD rates-South Asia, for example, run the same risk that non-immigrant families do, which suggests that the rise in IBD may be associated with Canada’s environment or lifestyle.

The non-genetic factors suggested have included hyper-hygiene: insufficient exposure to various microbes that naturally live inside and regulate a healthy gut.

That hypothesis might help shed light on why IBD is more prevalent in Western cities than in the less sterile countryside—and why it’s rampant in Canada, where at least 81 percent of us are urbanites. Other possible causes: artificial sweeteners (which can inhibit gut bacteria) and excessive antibiotic use. But for now, the jury is still out as to why inflamed bowels are so common within our borders.

Now that you’re familiar with inflammatory bowel disease symptoms, find out what your poop says about your health.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada

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