November 7, 2022

Irritable bowel syndrome: Symptoms and causes

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder that affects the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and usually involves a variety of symptoms. Symptoms can range from abdominal pain to bloating. IBS is a chronic condition that affects about 11% of people worldwide. If you think you may have IBS, it’s essential to speak with your healthcare provider.

Let’s review the different types of IBS, then get into the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of IBS.

What is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome is a chronic, inflammatory gastrointestinal disorder. A condition is chronic if a person has symptoms for more than six months. People living with IBS can experience various symptoms, depending on their type of IBS.

Are there different types of IBS?

There are three major subtypes of IBS. While people with IBS experience various gastrointestinal symptoms, they typically have a predominant bowel pattern, which determines their type of IBS.

  • IBS-D: IBS-D, or diarrhea-predominant IBS, is when you primarily have diarrhea.
  • IBS-C: IBS-C, or constipation-predominant, is when you primarily have constipation.
  • IBS-M: IBS-M, or alternating stool pattern, is when you have mixed bowel habits between diarrhea and constipation. It is also sometimes referred to as IBS-A.

What’s happening in your body when you have IBS?

IBS is a condition in your gastrointestinal tract that specifically affects the large intestine. It can cause cramps, diarrhea, and many other symptoms. While IBS does not cause any gross/substantial physical changes to your GI tract, it does alter your gut motility, and may be associated with changes in microbiota (bacteria).

However, research is still ongoing to find the exact causes and changes. IBS is part of a family of disorders of the gut-brain interaction, meaning that miscommunication within and between the gut and brain contribute to IBS symptoms.

IBS symptoms

People with IBS experience a variety of symptoms, which can include:

  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Bloating
  • Alterations in bowel habits
  • Diarrhea, constipation, or both
  • GasRelief of symptoms after defecating

Symptoms vary per person, and you may experience different IBS symptoms depending on the day.

IBS causes

The exact causes of altered gut-brain communication that lead to IBS symptoms are not fully known and likely vary between individuals. That being said, there are many factors known to contribute to IBS. Some commonly researched causes and risk factors include:

  • Diet: certain foods, like high-FODMAP foods can trigger symptoms
  • Age: Those under 50 are more likely to have IBS
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Prior gastrointestinal infections
Diagnosing IBS

If you think you may have IBS, it’s best to consult your healthcare provider, as IBS symptoms overlap with symptoms of many other severe health conditions.

Providers most commonly diagnose IBS by the presence of symptoms and alternations to bowel habits. Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history. They may order blood tests, stool samples, or a colonoscopy to rule out other potential causes.

IBS treatment options

After your healthcare provider determines that you have IBS, they can work with you to create a treatment plan. There are many pharmacological and non-pharmacological IBS treatment options. These include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Research shows that this treatment can help reduce IBS symptoms by leveraging the connection between your gut and brain. For example, gut-directed CBT can help reduce the impact of stress on your IBS symptoms. Finding an available therapist, especially one trained in IBS management, can be challenging. An app like Mahana that uses CBT and other techniques to help you manage your symptoms on your own time can be a great option.
  • Medications: Your healthcare provider may recommend prescription medications as well. These medications help control symptoms, such as cramping and changes to your bowel habits.
  • Diet changes: Your healthcare provider may recommend an elimination diet to identify foods that trigger your IBS. Or, they may advise trying a low-FODMAP diet.
  • Probiotics: Probiotics help restore the good bacteria in your gut, which may help manage IBS symptoms. Talk with your provider to see which brand they recommend.

If you think you have IBS, it’s important to talk with your healthcare provider. They can help you identify and manage IBS symptoms. They can also tell you if they think Mahana for IBS could help. Mahana for IBS is an app-based treatment program that helps you discover unhelpful patterns and triggers and teaches you skills to decrease your IBS symptoms.

This article is intended for educational purposes only. Talk to your doctor about any symptoms you are experiencing. See our full indications for use here.