Have you been suffering from gut issues? While it’s normal to have some occasional irregularities in your digestion due to changes in diet or illness, if digestive woes are cropping up more frequently, it could be a sign of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a fairly common disorder of the large intestine, and between 6-18% of the world’s population are affected by it (4). Although IBS is a chronic condition that needs long-term management, most people who have IBS don’t have severe symptoms which require medication and are instead able to manage it with diet and lifestyle choices. Indicators of Irritable bowel syndrome are most commonly experienced as abdominal pain and changes in form and/or frequency of bowel movements. In this article, we’ll go over what some of these IBS symptoms can look like in more detail (1,3).
What are the most common IBS symptoms?
IBS surfaces differently in each person, with everyone experiencing their own combination of triggers and symptoms. The most common symptoms of IBS include the following:
1.) Form and Frequency
The most obvious indicator of IBS is a change in your stool. This could mean changes in appearance, consistency, and/ or how often you’re passing a bowel movement. Because IBS interferes with the amount of time stool spends in your intestines, it can cause it to range from soft and watery to hard and dry, due to varied water absorption. Individuals who experience the diarrhea-predominant type of IBS (IBS-D), have soft, watery stool, often with mucus, and can also be plagued by the sudden urge to use the bathroom (4). Constipation predominant IBS (IBS-C) is the most common type and affects 50% of IBS sufferers. IBS-C symptoms, like IBS-D symptoms, include abdominal pain that eases after a bowel movement, but with an incomplete feeling as if it isn’t finished. As with IBS-D, there may also be light-colored mucus, but which builds up in stool over time. Those that suffer from both constipation and diarrhea suffer from IBS-M, which tends to be more severe. The consistent factor is persistent abdominal pain relieved by bowel movements (1,4).
2.) Pain and Cramping
As touched on above, the constant symptom and key indicator amongst all types of IBS is abdominal pain. Due to poor communication between the brain and gut, intestinal muscles become tense and painful. This is commonly lower abdominal pain which releases after a bowel movement (1,4).
3.) Increased Gas and Bloating
Gas and bloating typically occur together, as gas production due to digestive issues can cause uncomfortable bloating.These are highly prevalent and frustrating symptoms of IBS for most sufferers. (1,4).
4.) Food Sensitivity
If you notice that certain foods consistently causing an IBS attack, it could be a symptom of IBS. 70% of people report that IBS symptoms are triggered by dietary causes. We’re not sure why certain foods act as triggers for IBS symptoms, given they aren’t allergies. Gas-producing FODMAP foods, gluten, lactose, and/or stimulants like coffee and caffeine are common offenders (4).
5.) Psychological Symptoms
Fatigue and insomnia often go hand in hand with IBS, with many IBS patients reporting low energy, brain fog, and exhaustion. Fatigue can be worsened by IBS symptoms, but the inverse is also true, with low sleep quality exacerbating IBS symptoms. Those with IBS tend to be more fatigued and suffer from insomnia at higher rates than those without IBS (1,4). Like fatigue, depression, and anxiety worsen other IBS symptoms, which in turn also worsen depression and anxiety. Regardless of which comes first, increased mental stress often goes along with IBS (4).
When to seek medical help...
If your IBS symptoms are persistently interfering with the quality of your life, make an appointment with your doctor to get a diagnosis and to rule out anything more severe than IBS. Some symptoms merit making an appointment immediately, as they may indicate a more serious condition, such as colon cancer, although IBS itself does not cause cancer (1,3,4). Symptoms demanding immediate attention include:
- Rectal bleeding
- Weight loss
- Diarrhea at night
- Unexplained vomiting
- Difficulty swallowing
- Severe abdominal pain that continues after passing gas or a bowel movement (3)
Because IBS symptoms are often a part of other conditions, it can be difficult to arrive at a diagnosis, with an average of 6 years before a doctor confirms it. Once diagnosed, your doctor may refer you to a gastroenterologist to help manage your IBS symptoms, which can be achieved through a variety of methods, including supplements, dietary changes, exercise, and increased hydration. If your IBS is more severe, medications can be prescribed to help. Every person is different and will respond to a different combination of treatments, but together with your doctor, you can find the right solution for your IBS symptoms (1,4).
- “IBS Symptoms to Watch out For,” carolinadigestive.com, Carolina Digestive, April 15, 2019, https://carolinadigestive.com/about-us/news/ibs-symptoms-to-watch-out-for.
- “Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS),” clevelandclinic.org, Cleveland Clinic, accessed on August 25, 2021, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/4342-irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs.
- “Irritable Bowel Syndrome,” mayoclinic.org, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, accessed on August 25, 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20360016.
- Mathew Thorpe, MD, Ph.D., “9 Signs and Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome,” healthline.org, Healthline Media, revised July 19, 2019, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/9-signs-and-symptoms-of-ibs.