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The Facts About Irritable Bowel Syndrome

The Facts About Irritable Bowel Syndrome

A cloth model of the intestines sit in palms of someone's hands.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that affects the stomach and intestines, causing pain in the belly, constipation, diarrhea and gas.


When certain symptoms combine to have an impact on your digestive system, the condition is known as irritable bowel syndrome. Constipation, cramping and excessive gas are symptoms of IBS.

Irritable bowel syndrome affects people of all ages. Approximately 25 million to 45 million people in the United States suffer from IBS. About 2 out of 3 IBS sufferers are female.


Both IBS and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are digestive disorders that affect the esophagus, stomach and intestines. Irritable bowel syndrome has a number of symptoms, including diarrhea, constipation and chronic stomach pain. IBD, on the other hand, describes chronic intestinal inflammation or swelling. IBD is a term for two conditions: Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. IBS does not progress to IBD or result in long-term damage to your intestines.

It can be challenging to treat symptoms because they might differ from person to person and frequently fluctuate over time.


Researchers do not know the exact cause of irritable bowel syndrome. It's believed to be caused by a combination of factors, including:

  • Brain-gut dysfunction. A miscommunication between nerves in the brain and gut.
  • Dysmotility. Problems with how the gastrointestinal (GI) muscles contract and move food through the gastrointestinal tract.

Visceral hypersensitivity. Having especially sensitive nerves in the GI tract.

Influences on IBS

People with irritable bowel syndrome tend to experience certain issues more frequently. The following issues may contribute to the development of IBS:

  • A rise in the number of bacteria or a change in the kind of bacteria in the small intestine
  • Bacterial infections of the digestive system
  • Food intolerances or sensitivities in which a particular food triggers digestive symptoms
  • Mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety
  • Traumatic or challenging early experiences, such as physical or sexual abuse

Sleep and IBS

Sleep is a vital part of your overall health. Unfortunately, many people with irritable bowel syndrome report having sleep problems. Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, such as diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating, can interrupt sleep patterns.

Not much research has been done on the link between sleep difficulties and the GI system. However, IBS has been associated with low-quality sleep, reduced sleep and sleep disturbances.


Common symptoms of IBS include the following:

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas and bloating

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome are not always persistent. They can resolve, then return. However, some individuals experience continuous symptoms.

Stress, anxiety and IBS

Stress and anxiety activate the central nervous system, which releases hormones that affect the digestive processes. These hormones may lead to constipation, gas, diarrhea and other common symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Therefore, stress management is critical for keeping IBS flare-ups in check.

The difficulties of irritable bowel syndrome can also result in anxiety and depression. Fear of a sudden onset of symptoms may cause anxiety, which can worsen IBS symptoms. Getting help from mental healthcare providers is an important component of IBS treatment. Many sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome find relief from meditation, yoga and breathing exercises.

Menstrual cycle and IBS

Over half of women with irritable bowel syndrome report daily symptoms associated with their menstrual cycle. These symptoms vary from diarrhea and constipation to severe bloating and gas.

While studies continue to explore the correlation between IBS and menstruation, it's evident that many women experience more severe symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome during premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menstruation. One theory posits that women who suffer from constipation during PMS may be more sensitive to progesterone levels, which increase before their period and can lead to constipation. This might explain why so many women with IBS report pelvic pain, gas, bloating and backache.

Women who experience constipation during PMS may also experience intense bouts of diarrhea during menstruation. This is caused by the lower levels of progesterone, which increases the frequency of bowel movements.

Sex drive and IBS

Studies have found a higher prevalence of sexual dysfunction among men and women with irritable bowel syndrome, including reduced libido (sex drive), increased dyspareunia (pain during sex) and more severe symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome after sex.

Patients with irritable bowel syndrome report a higher rate of avoiding sex than those without it. The most common sexual dysfunction in IBS patients is believed to be decreased libido. One study in 1998 found a decreased sexual drive in 36.2 percent of male IBS patients and 28.4 percent of female IBS patients.

Sexual health and IBS

IBS symptoms can make having sex challenging. People with IBS may feel anxious, depressed and embarrassed. These emotions can affect sex drive. Men with IBS may struggle with erectile dysfunction (ED), the inability to achieve and maintain an erection rigid enough for intercourse. Research has suggested that men with IBS are at higher risk for ED than men without IBS.

Dating with IBS

Dating with irritable bowel syndrome requires considering what you eat, being prepared to deal with an IBS flare-up and always knowing where the nearest toilet is located. Despite these challenges, navigating dating with IBS is possible.

It's important to first recognize your triggers to minimize the chance of a flare-up.

For example, if certain foods are a trigger for your symptoms, select an activity for the first date that doesn't involve eating, such as meeting at a coffee shop, going for a walk in the park or going bowling. Any fun and interactive activity that doesn't aggravate your symptoms is a safe bet. Before the date, take your medication, meditate or talk to a friend who can help you remain calm.

Finding an understanding partner can also decrease your stress. Negative emotions like anxiety and depression can exacerbate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, which is why it's so important that you choose a supportive partner.

Treatment options

Common IBS treatment options include taking prescription medications, making dietary changes and engaging in talk therapy and alternative therapies, such as hypnotherapy and acupuncture.

Medications that may be used to treat irritable bowel syndrome include the following:

  • Antibiotics
  • Antidiarrheal medications
  • Laxatives
  • Low-dose antidepressants
  • Smooth muscle relaxants

When to see a doctor

See a doctor if unexplained gastrointestinal symptoms last for longer than a month. A gastroenterologist is a specialist with expertise in irritable bowel syndrome and other diseases and disorders of the digestive system. They can review your symptoms and your medical history. They will likely order tests to gain a better understanding of your symptoms and rule out more serious conditions, such as colon cancer.

Common tests include an abdominal and rectal examination, a stool test, X-rays and a colonoscopy. These tests enable the doctor to prescribe medications and recommend dietary changes to relieve your IBS symptoms.


What are the warning signs of IBS?

A change in your bowel movements is the most common early warning sign of irritable bowel syndrome. Tell your doctor if your bowel movements change or you develop IBS symptoms, such as constipation or diarrhea. Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome can be a sign of a wide array of diseases and health concerns, and your doctor may want to run tests to exclude these concerns.

Unfortunately, irritable bowel syndrome does not have specific signals that indicate you definitively have it. There are no "official" warning signs for IBS, and it's typically not considered a serious disease.

Here are some common IBS symptoms to look out for:

  • Anal soreness or irritation
  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Food intolerance
  • Gas and bloating
  • Insomnia
  • Mucous in stool

How do you get rid of IBS?

IBS symptoms, such as stomach pain, diarrhea and bloating, can seriously interfere with your daily life. While the symptoms can be bothersome, irritable bowel syndrome is certainly manageable.

There is no cure for IBS, but you can control and improve symptoms with diet and lifestyle modifications.

How do doctors test for IBS?

There's no test for IBS, but you might need some tests to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms.

The doctor may order tests such as:

  • A blood test to check for gastrointestinal issues, such as celiac disease
  • A stool sample to check for infections and inflammatory bowel disease