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Categories > Digestive Disorders > Indigestion

Irritable bowel syndrome: How to take control
The root of the problem
What you can do

Could you have IBS?
Could you have IBS?

In the absence of a test for IBS, doctors usually diagnose the condition by ruling out other conditions, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Symptoms that suggest IBS include:

  • intense stomach discomfort relieved by defecation, and a change in frequency and consistency of bowel movements recurring for at least three months
  • straining, urgency or a sensation of incomplete evacuation during bowel movements
  • passage of mucus
  • bloating

A colon X-ray or colonoscopy may also be useful in helping a doctor diagnose IBS.

Maybe your digestive system is so temperamental you’re afraid to travel. Or perhaps frequent bloating, cramps and unpredictable bowel movements force you to stay close to a restroom at all times. If these scenes could be copied from your life, you may have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Often called “spastic colon,” IBS is a common intestinal disorder that causes abdominal cramps, diarrhea, gas, bloating and constipation. Although help is available, embarrassment causes many people with IBS to suffer in silence rather than seek treatment.

The root of the problem

Experts believe the condition occurs when the delicate interplay among the nerves, hormones and electrical activity that link the bowel and the brain is disrupted. If you never thought about the connection between the brain and the stomach before, just imagine the butterflies you feel before making a speech or the bellyache that might come on during a heated argument. In IBS, pain sensors in the colon are more sensitive than normal, causing them to respond strongly to stimuli that don’t affect most people. In short, a breakfast of scrambled eggs and milk can spell disaster for those with the disorder.

What you can do

  • See your physician as soon as symptoms appear. Your physician will know which treatment course is best for you. And since the signs of IBS may mimic those of a serious disease, it’s important to rule out any underlying disorder.
  • Write down the foods that seem to bring on symptoms and discuss your findings with your doctor. Once you identify the foods that trigger symptoms, scale back your intake. Common culprits are dairy products, caffeine, beans, cabbage, fat and alcohol. Remember that many of the nutrients you need may be in the foods you are avoiding, so be sure to make healthy substitutions.
  • Limit spicy foods.
  • Since large meals often cause cramping and diarrhea, try eating a few small meals throughout the day instead of three large courses.
  • Control tension levels. Because of the brain-bowel connection, high stress levels can trigger IBS symptoms. To unwind, go for a daily walk, talk with a friend, dust off an old hobby or listen to music.

Although antidiarrheals and laxatives may ease symptoms, they are not a long-term solution. Instead, your doctor may prescribe antispasmodics for relief. In severe cases, antidepressant medication may help soothe distress.