Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects the large intestine. IBS is characterized by a combination of abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, and altered bowel function (constipation or diarrhea, sometimes alternating bouts of both). Symptoms are often accompanied by varying degrees of anxiety or depression.
IBS affects as many as one in five American adults. Even though the symptoms are uncomfortable, IBS -- unlike Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, which are forms of inflammatory bowel disease -- doesn't cause changes in bowel tissue or increase your risk of colorectal cancer. Only a small number of people with IBS have severe symptoms. However, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, IBS is second only to the common cold as a cause of absenteeism from work.
It's not exactly known what causes IBS, but three main factors seem to play a role: food, stress, and hormones.
Food: Many individuals have more severe symptoms when they eat certain foods. A wide range of foods have been implicated, but chocolate, spices, fats, beans, cabbage, broccoli, milk, carbonated beverages, and alcohol are a few of the most common. A diet low in fiber and high in sugar can aggravate symptoms.
Stress: Most people with IBS find that their symptoms get worse during periods of stress. Although stress worsens symptoms, it does not cause them.
Hormones: Because women are twice as likely to have IBS, researchers believe hormonal changes may play a role in this condition. In addition, many women find that their symptoms are worse during or around menstruation.
For most people, IBS is a chronic condition, but there are likely times when symptoms are worse and other times when they improve or completely disappear. Many people can control their symptoms by managing diet, lifestyle, and stress. Supplements may also be helpful. In addition to a high-quality multivitamin formula, consider probiotics. Supplying the gut with healthy bacteria is very important for managing IBS.
If you have signs of IBS, it's important to see your health care practitioner to rule out inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer.
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