Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) generally refers to recurrent diarrhea and/or constipation. This common condition (also referred to as spastic or nervous colon) is often associated with bloating, excessive gas and abdominal pain.
IBS does not have one, distinct cause. Many patients complain of lifelong problems, while others note an onset in adulthood. Effects may follow a bad infection or heavy antibiotic use. Since symptoms vary, it’s likely that several factors play a role in the development of this condition.
An IBS diagnosis is usually made after a gastrointestinal workup fails to cement one specific cause of symptoms. Most patients can be diagnosed with good confidence based on their history. Patients suffering from weight loss, blood in stool, a family history of inflammatory bowel disease or colon cancer, or onset of IBS symptoms after the age 50, should consult a physician immediately.
To appropriately address IBS, factors such as diet, digestion, immune system and stress should be considered. Diet may be the most important factor, with highly processed foods typically aggravating IBS. High sugar, caffeine and artificial sweeteners also play a major role in chronic bowel symptoms.
Inadequate intake of fruits and vegetables will predispose the bowels to poor digestion and bloating. Any food that is not digested can be a trigger for IBS. The most frequent offenders are dairy (milk, cheese and foods containing casein) and gluten-containing grains (barley, rye, oats, wheat and spelt). The root cause is most often a true allergy or digestive intolerance. Symptoms from these foods can occur minutes to several hours after being ingested. Since these are common items, many people don’t realize that they are triggers until two to six hours later. Foods previously unproblematic may no longer be tolerated in adulthood.
On the next page, learn to identify food triggers by keeping a food diary.