When you’re one of the 20 percent
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 percent of the adult U.S. population. Here are some symptoms and risk factors. If you have abdominal pain that’s not accompanied by bowel changes like constipation or diarrhea, here are some other causes of stomach pain and discomfort that are not irritable bowel syndrome.
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.
Risk factor: You’re a woman under age 50
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For unknown reasons, women sufferers outnumber men two to one, a ratio that holds not just in the United States but 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 foods you should be avoiding if you have irritable bowel syndrome.