The bowel is the lower, or large intestine, also called the colon. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is an all-too-common disorder of the colon that affects perhaps 10 to 15 percent of our population. It is much more prevalent in women than in men.
The symptoms, which can range from mild to severe, include abdominal cramps, gas, bloating, and changes in bowel habits, usually constipation or diarrhea. Some people experience alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea.
A Poorly Understood Condition
IBS is a somewhat mysterious disorder. It is not considered a disease, because it does not actually damage the colon or cause long-term problems other than the digestive symptoms. The cause is unknown. It may be that a number of contributing factors combine in just the right way to create an ultra-sensitivity in the bowel. This sensitivity makes the symptoms flare up in response to certain triggers.
You may not be familiar with the term irritable bowel syndrome, but you have probably heard of colitis and spastic colon. IBS, however, is not the same as colitis, or ulcerative colitis, which is an inflammation of the lining of the colon. There is no inflammation with IBS.
Getting Help for IBS
Many people do not seek treatment for IBS, or they attempt to alleviate the symptoms with over-the-counter remedies. This is unfortunate, because IBS is quite treatable, even though it may require a multi-pronged treatment approach. Some patients recover completely, and most find a substantial degree of relief from symptoms.
It is also important to find a doctor with experience in treating IBS. Years ago, many doctors thought of IBS as an hysterical condition that was “all in the mind.” It is not. IBS is a real health problem, but psychological factors are clearly linked to IBS. Depression and anxiety disorders can aggravate it, and it appears to be more common among people who were abused as children.
There are medications that may help IBS, but the cornerstones of successful treatment are lifestyle changes, mainly diet and stress-reduction. A low-fat, high fiber diet is typically part of treatment. Eating small, frequent meals instead of large ones can be beneficial. You will have to scrutinize your diet for trigger foods, such as caffeine, chocolate, dairy products and high-fat foods.
Reducing stress is easier said than done. For some people it may be as simple as switching jobs or starting an exercise program. But for others, it may require counseling to bring about the necessary changes.