Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): A sign of trouble or just a sensitive stomach?
Have you ever had days (or a series of days) when you experience stomach issues and become extra gassy? That might be Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or suggestive of a more serious condition.
It is important to note that IBS is a medical diagnosis — it isn’t an all-encompassing term your doctor uses when they cannot pinpoint the cause of your bowel issues. It just so happens that most of the time, Irritable Bowel Syndrome is idiopathic, and can spontaneously happen. The truth is: our gut is sensitive and it can be affected by a myriad of factors, from chronic stress to the food we eat.
What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a functional disorder of the gastrointestinal tract (intestines) where the individual goes through various grades of abdominal pain and a change in bowel motion habits.
There is a wide range in the symptoms of IBS and unfortunately, many of these symptoms are vague and non-specific. Many patients with IBS have been incorrectly diagnosed and labelled as “tummy colic” or even “psychological pain”.
Some of the symptoms of IBS include:
- Painful stomach cramps
- Constant changes in bowel habits and stool consistency (constipation or diarrhoea)
- Persistent bloating and excess gas
- Mucus in the stool
- Burning during pooping
- Sudden urgency to visit the restroom
- Constipated and bloated (feeling an incomplete bowel movement)
When should I consult a doctor?
Everyone experiences IBS symptoms at some point in their life. However, if you experience chronic IBS or if your symptoms include severe abdominal pain, constipation, bleeding and diarrhoea, you should consult your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Severe symptoms may be indicative of a more serious condition, such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) or Colorectal Cancer which would require immediate treatment.
What can I expect when visiting the doctor?
There are no definitive tests for IBS, however, your doctor may run other tests to rule out other serious conditions. It would be best to come in for your consultation with a detailed history of your symptoms and a list of food you’ve eaten the past few days.
Depending on those answers, they might do a physical exam, order routine blood tests, a colonoscopy, and/or some other diagnostics such as ultrasounds or CT scans.
A colonoscopy is a form of endoscopic investigation. It is essentially a ‘camera test’ whereby the internal lining of the colon and rectum are directly visualised using a flexible scope (‘camera’) that is inserted through the anus. Through the scope, a small forceps or a snare can be introduced to allow biopsies and the removal of polyps.
What if it’s more than IBS?
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is much more serious than IBS and can cause permanent intestinal damage. Although they may have similar symptoms, IBD is the inflammation or destruction of the bowel wall, which can lead to ulcers and narrowing of the intestines.
Two major types of IBD are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease:
- Ulcerative colitis – limited to the colon or large intestine.
- Crohn’s disease – can involve any part of the gastrointestinal tract from the mouth to the anus.
Some of the problems associated with IBD:
- Blood in the stool
- Rectal bleeding
- Weight loss
- Chronic exhaustion
- Iron deficiency anaemia due to blood loss
If you experience any of these symptoms, your condition may be more than just a sensitive stomach or IBS, and should be checked out by your doctor as soon as possible.
Ulcerative colitis increases the risk of colon cancer. Moreover, it could also cause affect other organs and cause further complications such as arthritis or liver and kidney disorders.
What foods should I avoid with a sensitive stomach?
You could try avoiding FODMAP foods as these could exacerbate gut symptoms in people with IBS. FODMAP stands for Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols — short-chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that are poorly absorbed by the body. Some of these are:
- Fructose – often found in fruits, honey and high-fructose corn syrup
- Lactose – dairy products like milk and cheese
- Fructans – wheat, onions, garlic
- Galactans – beans and legumes
- Polyols – Sugar alcohols and fruits that have pits and seeds, like apples, avocados, etc.
A low-FODMAP diet could help lessen your digestive symptoms and manage your IBS.
Other food types that may trigger symptoms in those with a sensitive stomach are gluten-containing products, such as bread.
Most of the time, Irritable Bowel Syndrome goes away on its own, although the reason for this may be as unclear as its causation in the first place.
Ultimately, adopting a healthy diet and a few lifestyle changes, as well as paying attention to your gut and how it reacts to certain types of food or environments may help in learning how to better manage your IBS symptoms. That said, seek help from your doctor if you feel that your symptoms are beyond your control or cause you distress so that your doctor may work with you on a treatment plan that best suits you.
If your sensitive stomach symptoms gradually worsen or you find yourself experiencing bloody stools, rectal bleeding or sudden weight loss, it is important to consult a doctor immediately.