Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common gastrointestinal disorder that affects the large intestine and can cause bloating, cramping, abdominal pains, diarrhea and/or constipation. The condition is usually chronic, typically affects women more than men, and can require a variety of treatment options. The cause of IBS is currently unknown, and triggers vary from patient to patient.
"Only 50 percent of people being treated actually get better, almost regardless of what you do," gastroenterologist Dr. Anish Sheth explains. "We still have a lot of work to do, and I think understanding that there's a very complex nervous system in our GI tract called the enteric nervous system, and understanding the neurotransmitters that are involved there, are really going to lead to better therapies down the road."
• Abdominal pain
• Diarrhea or constipation, or fluctuating bouts of both
• Mucus in feces
Triggers for IBS include certain high-fiber fruits and vegetables, milk-based and alcoholic beverages, as well as high stress amounts; in addition, a surge of hormones during menstrual cycles and abnormal hormone levels also have been shown to exacerbate the condition.
"I think people who don't suffer from [IBS] don't realize how debilitating it can truly be for certain individuals," ER physician Dr. Travis Stork says.
Probiotics, supplements, dietary and lifestyle changes, over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medications, antibiotics, intestinal desensitizers and even antidepressants may be prescribed to help restore proper hormone secretions, relieve inflammation and regulate bacteria levels inside the bowels.
"I think IBS gets kind of chalked up to being a complete psychological issue, and I think that's one thing we have to dispel here," Dr. Sheth says. "There's no blood test for IBS. You can't see it on a colonoscopy, you can’t see it on an endoscopy or a CAT scan, which makes the diagnosis hard, and I think it's what has lead folks to say, 'Well, it's all in their head,' and that's clearly not the case.
"I think the management of IBS starts with diet [and] stress management, in part, but I think the other thing that gets lost in IBS treatment is the importance of the bacteria we have in our intestinal tract. We have more bacteria in our GI tract than we have cells in the body," Dr. Sheth explains.
"Using things like probiotics, healthy yogurts, things like that to rebalance the bacteria can be a good treatment. It's a low-risk, high-reward proposition. There's really no downside. About 40 to 50 percent of people, just after a month or two of probiotics, will at least have some improvement in their quality of life."