10 symptoms of IBS to look out for

10 symptoms of IBS to look out for

Is your indigestion a sign of something more? Here are 10 symptoms of IBS to look out for.

Suffering from a gastrointestinal problem–be it constipation, diarrhoea, or excessive gas–is no walk in the park. To make matters worse, it isn’t exactly an easy topic to bring up at the dinner table. Can you imagine discussing your bowel movement to your brother- or sister-in-law over Sunday Roast? You’re probably already trembling from thinking of the awkward silence and shifty side glances. As a result, there’s no way to know if what you’re experiencing is typical (especially after an indulgent meal) or if you’re suffering from something more–like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Here we look at 10 symptoms of IBS to help you work out what you’re experiencing.

To help shed light on whether you’re amongst the 17% suffering from IBS in the UK, here’s a brief introduction to the condition, its signs and symptoms, and what to do if you suspect you have it.

What is IBS?

IBS is a digestive disorder that impacts the large intestine (aka colon) and is characterized by a cluster of issues, including abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and boating. While IBS is not life-threatening, its symptoms can be very uncomfortable indeed. Many individuals suffering from IBS report it to be a debilitating chronic condition.
How bad is it, you ask? Well, this might give you an idea: in a study conducted by the University of North Carolina, people with IBS told researchers that they would give up an average of 25% of their remaining lifespan to be symptom-free. That’s equivalent to giving up on 12.5 years of life if an IBS sufferer had 50 more years to live!

What are the symptoms of IBS?

Generally, IBS involves abdominal discomfort plus altered bowel movements, but these symptoms can also be accompanied by others that may appear unrelated, like anxiety, depression, and tiredness. More on that below.

#1 – Abdominal pain and cramping

One of the most common presenting symptoms of IBS is abdominal pain, which is often described by sufferers as spasms, cramping, dull aching, and overall general stomach discomfort. This pain is believed to stem from a breakdown in the cooperative signals between the hormones, nerves, and signals released by gut bacteria–leading to uncoordinated and painful tension in the muscles of the digestive tract. For some individuals, IBS pain decreases following a bowel movement or passing gas.

#2 – Gas and bloating

Perhaps the most embarrassing and disturbing symptom of IBS is the uncontrollable gassiness. Publicly passing gas (especially in an otherwise quiet environment) can be downright humiliating. Even though doctors are still trying to figure out the exact reason behind this gassiness, there are 2 popular theories:

  • Gut bacteria – The strains of bacteria in the gut, also known as microbiota, may differ in people with IBS compared to a healthy individual. If the ‘bad’ bacteria outnumber the ‘good,’ gassiness can result.
  • Slowed passage of waste material – Bowel contractions can be weaker in IBS sufferers. As a result, the passage of waste material in the gut slows and gas becomes trapped. This can then result in increased gassiness.
As you can imagine, gassiness naturally leads to bloating.

#3 – Diarrhea

Just so you know, IBS that causes increased diarrhoea is further classified as IBS-D: 1 of the 3 main types of the chronic condition. It affects roughly a third of IBS sufferers. According to a study done on 200 adults, those suffering from IBS-D had, on average, 12 bowel movements weekly–more than twice the amount of those without IBS. That’s a lot of back-and-forth trips to the toilet.

Something worthy to note is that for certain IBS-D sufferers, the urgency is so significant that they may be fearful of, or actually experience, bathroom accidents. This is undoubtedly a significant source of stress.

#4 – Constipation

With all that gurgling, bloating, and cramping going on in the stomach, you’d think that IBS sufferers needn’t worry themselves about constipation–defined as having fewer than 3 bowel movements per week. Alas, this is not so. The truth is that constipation-predominant IBS (aka IBS-C) is the most common type of IBS. It affects nearly 50% of individuals struggling with IBS.
Wondering why IBS causes constipation? Well, remember how weaker bowel contractions lead to the slowed passage of waste material? This means that your intestines can draw more water from stool–making it more difficult to pass.

#5 – Alternating bouts of diarrhoea and constipation

Guess what’s worse than suffering from diarrhoea or constipation alone? Experiencing alternating bouts of both, of course! This is known as alternating-type IBS (IBS-A) and affects about 20% of IBS sufferers. Swinging between these 2 extremes can happen over months, weeks, or even in the same day!

#6 – Food intolerance

For many individuals suffering from IBS, certain foods can trigger uncomfortable digestive symptoms. Or, to be more exact, up to 70% of IBS sufferers report particular foods–such as high-FODMAPs foods, lactose, and gluten–trigger symptoms. The reasons why these foods trigger symptoms are currently unknown. Regardless, note that the specific foods that trigger IBS are different for different people. And that makes it impossible to draw up a single, universal list of foods to avoid.

#7 – Anxiety or depression

Given the amount of mental distress IBS can cause, it’s no surprise that the symptoms of IBS include anxiety and depression. According to a large 2015 study, individuals with IBS were 70% more likely to have a mood disorder, such as depression, and 50% more likely to have an anxiety disorder. While it’s still unclear which precedes which (i.e. do anxiety and depression come first, or does IBS come first?), one thing’s sure: mood disorders and IBS symptoms reinforce one another in a vicious cycle.

#8 – Loss of appetite

As you know by now, one of the most common symptoms of IBS includes bloating and anxiety. Add mental distress to the mix, and an IBS sufferer may find little reason to eat in fear of triggering another episode of digestive symptoms–causing a loss in appetite. In some individuals, this loss of appetite can also be accompanied by feelings of nausea, which can be a side effect of acid reflux.

#9 – Fatigue and difficulty sleeping

Interestingly, fatigue is the third most common ‘extraintestinal’ complaint of patients with IBS. Separately, each presents a unique set of challenges, but together, imaginably, they can be a double-whammy for an individual’s quality of life. And while you’d think that fatigue would naturally lead to a good night’s sleep, the opposite appears to hold. Research indicates that IBS is also related to insomnia, which includes difficulty falling asleep, waking frequently, and feeling unrested in the morning.

#10 – Changes in bowel movements

In addition to constipation and diarrhoea, changes in bowel movements also include increased amounts of mucus or the presence of blood in the stool. If you ever do spot blood in your stool, pay a visit to the doctor. Immediately.

It can be a serious problem–especially if your stool is black and tarry. That indicates bleeding in the upper part of your digestive tract. Bright red blood or maroon-coloured blood, on the other hand, usually indicates a problem in the lower part of your digestive tract, including haemorrhoids or diverticulitis (infection or inflammation of pouches that can form in your intestines).

Suspect you have IBS?

Did you catch yourself nodding away to most (if not all) of the IBS symptoms listed above? If IBS is adversely impacting your quality of life, you may want to visit a doctor who can help rule out other diseases, diagnose you with IBS–and perhaps most importantly, guide you through the process of identifying your unique triggers and finding ways to alleviate your symptoms. But if after reading this guide to the 10 symptoms of IBS you want to talk to a specialist then we are here. Remember: you don’t have to suffer in silence! Help is readily available.

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