woman clutching stomach in pain

Monday, April 20, 2020

Imagine you’re sitting in the conference room at work about to make a presentation to a room full of people, and it hits you: A sharp pain in the gut accompanied by bloating, gas and the need to get to a bathroom – quick. For most of us, it’s a rare mortifying moment caused by a stomach bug or a bad hamburger. But for more than 20 million Americans, it’s a common occurrence.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, can greatly affect your quality of life and even your mood. IBS is a group of intestinal symptoms that typically occur together: diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, cramping and abdominal pain. The severity and duration of symptoms vary from person to person but last several months.

“It’s the most common reason for missed work days,” said Philip Bird, MD, gastroenterologist with GI of Norman. “Diarrhea is probably more prevalent than constipation, but either one with pain is a hallmark of IBS.”

What Causes IBS?

The exact cause of IBS isn’t known, but several factors may play a role in the disorder. Those include: muscle contractions in the intestines that are too weak or too strong, inflammation in the intestines, changes in gut bacteria, and hormones. The hormonal factor may be why twice as many women than men are diagnosed with IBS.

“Many women with IBS started having symptoms in high school,” Dr. Bird said. “They thought for years the bloating was caused by their uterus when really it was caused by their colon.”

Others at risk include those with a family history of IBS, or people with a mental health problem. Most IBS sufferers are under age 50.

The Food Factor

When it comes to managing your symptoms, start with what’s in your refrigerator and pantry.

“Lower fiber foods can increase the likelihood of diarrhea while dairy products can lead to bloating and nausea,” Dr. Bird said. “Peaches, pears, apples and fruit juices are also common triggers.”

One of the best things you can do to try and ward off the symptoms of IBS is to eat a high-fiber diet. That means filling up on vegetables, oats, chia seeds, almonds, lentils and dark chocolate. 

“Most Americans only get about six grams of fiber a day, but you really need about 25 grams a day to get some digestive benefits," Dr. Bird said.

You’ll also want to avoid late night snacks, and excessive amounts of alcohol and caffeine. Adding probiotics – good bacteria - to your diet can also help.

Exercise & Stress

The second best thing IBS sufferers can do is work up a sweat.

“Exercise is very important because it helps alleviate stress which we know is a contributing factor to IBS,” Dr. Bird said.

Stress can affect your nerves, making your digestive system overactive. Dr. Bird also suggests addressing the issues causing you tension, anxiety or stress.

“Take a look at those emotional things going on in your life and find someone to talk to – a friend, a preacher or a therapist,” Dr. Bird said.

When to See a Gastroenterologist

Many times IBS can be managed simply through changes in diet and exercise, and medication prescribed by your family doctor. You might be referred to a gastroenterologist if you experience rectal bleeding, weight loss, diarrhea at night, unexplained vomiting or persistent abdominal pain that isn’t relieved by a bowel movement or passing gas.

Physicians will also want to rule out other issues for older patients experiencing IBS-like symptoms for the first time.

“If they’re having these symptoms for the first time at 60 years old then we need to do a work up,” Dr. Bird said. “The X-ray may show Crohn’s disease or colitis. It could be a bowel obstruction or blockage. So we need to make sure it isn’t something more serious.”

Dr. Bird’s final tip is to get a good night’s rest. Research has shown that a bad night’s sleep may lead to a bad IBS day. So make sleep a priority. You need at least seven hours a night. If you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep, talk to your family doctor.