Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Nicole Fornabaio/Rd.com, zizi_mentos/shutterstock Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can cause frequent loose bowel movements, along with cramping and bloating. About 10 to 15 percent of the adult population has IBS, according to David Levinthal, MD, PhD, a gastroenterologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). IBS is more common in women and people under 50. Unfortunately, doctors are still trying to unravel the mystery of what causes IBS. “Ultimately, IBS is diagnosed by the presence of core symptoms of altered bowel movements and abdominal pain, in the absence of alarm signs or symptoms such as weight loss or blood in the stool,” Dr. Levinthal says. “There is a large amount of research being conducted into the underlying disease mechanisms that are at play in a patient with IBS.” He says possible causes include imbalances in gut bacteria, changes in gut motility (meaning food goes right through you), problems with fermentation of sugars, which causes a laxative-like effect, and even problems with the neural pathways that communicate with the GI tract. So if doctors don’t know what causes it, what can you do about it? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests keeping a food diary to see what your triggers are—common culprits are dairy, caffeine, alcohol, artificial sweeteners, and some fruits and veggies. Try to get more fiber in your diet, drink a lot of water to combat dehydration from diarrhea, and avoid eating large meals. Some research has suggested a gluten-free diet may help as well. Does IBS often get mistaken for cancer?
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Nicole Fornabaio/Rd.com, zizi_mentos/shutterstock Not to be confused with IBS, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is caused by inflammation in the GI tract. IBD affects 1.6 million Americans, and includes two major types of IBD, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. Although Dr. Levinthal says the majority of chronic diarrhea is not due to IBD, it’s definitely a major symptom of people who have it. IBD is diagnosed by the scary symptoms that are used to rule out IBS. “Most patients with true Crohn’s disease, or related ulcerative colitis, experience bloody bowel movements, nocturnal diarrhea, more constant abdominal pain, rapid weight loss, and a variety of ‘extra-intestinal’ manifestations of disease including mouth ulcers, joint pains, or skin lesions,” Dr. Levinthal says. The inflammation occurs when the body’s immune system thinks food or gut bacteria are harmful foreign substances that must be attacked, which causes inflammation. Doctors don’t know why this immune response happens, although a recent study from Arizona State University and Mayo Clinic Arizona identified some biomarkers for Crohn’s disease, a promising step toward figuring out its underlying causes. For now, anti-inflammatory drugs are one step in treatment. As with IBS, keeping a food diary to figure out what foods worsen symptoms is a good idea, and a registered dietitian can help you come up with an individualized diet plan to manage your symptoms. Read about diets to consider if you have digestive problems.