Irritating Irritable Bowel Syndrome (Part 1)

Shhh…irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, isn’t exactly a topic that one brings up at the dinner table or during a business meeting. It might even be a topic that, if you have IBS, you don’t talk about with anyone except maybe your physician. But if you’re part of the 20% of Americans who live with IBS (and yes, some of them also have diabetes), chances are you welcome any information that may just help relieve some of your symptoms. Let’s take a closer look at this condition and find out what’s being done to help those who have it.

What is IBS?
IBS isn’t a disease. It’s not the same thing as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or Crohn disease. And while some who have IBS would liken it to a disease, it’s actually a condition or disorder that can cause extreme discomfort, inconvenience, and even embarrassment.


One in five Americans has IBS, and women are more likely than men to have it. IBS can start early: About 50% of those who have it are diagnosed before the age of 35. In the past, this condition was called colitis, mucous colitis, spastic colon, or spastic bowel, but the proper name is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). By the way, gastroparesis, a type of neuropathy that can occur in people with diabetes, isn’t the same as irritable bowel syndrome. Gastroparesis may cause diarrhea and/or constipation in some, but it’s primarily a disorder of the stomach, whereas IBS mostly affects the large intestine.

Ask anyone who has IBS to name some of the symptoms and you’ll likely hear a common thread:

  • Abdominal cramping or pain
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea and/or constipation (they can often alternate with each other)

Many people report difficulty having a bowel movement, with an ability to pass only a small amount of stool or else pass a lot of mucus. Those who are more likely to have diarrhea report a frequent urge to “go.” Symptoms can wax and wane, too. Someone may go for months or even years without symptoms. And symptoms tend to fade or subside as one gets older.

Is IBS Serious?
IBS can certainly be debilitating for people. Many report having to plan their day around finding a bathroom. Others shun social activities for fear of having an accident, while some complain of pain and discomfort. But there’s no evidence that IBS leads to any serious problems or disease, such as inflammatory bowel disease or colon cancer.

What Causes IBS?
You’d think that when so many people have a condition, whether it be IBS or even diabetes, the cause would be pretty obvious. However, no one really knows what causes IBS. The intestinal tract is connected to the brain via the nervous system. Stress, hormones, neurotransmitters, and even the immune system may play a role in disrupting or interfering with communication between the brain and the intestine. Because of this, the muscles lining the intestinal wall can contract or even spasm, leading to cramps and pain. Furthermore, the contents of the intestines may move through either too quickly, leading to diarrhea, or too slowly, leading to constipation. Basically, things get out of sync.

Researchers also believe that some people have “sensitive intestines” (now who would have thought intestines could be sensitive?). In other words, some people with IBS apparently have intestines that react more strongly to certain factors, such as:

  • Stress. People react to stress in all different ways, and it’s no surprise that IBS symptoms can flare up or worsen when stress is evident. Stress doesn’t cause IBS, though.
  • Food. Some foods are triggers for IBS flare-ups. Chocolate, alcohol, caffeinated drinks, and sugar-free candies may be culprits for some people (but not necessarily for everyone).
  • Hormones. Flare-ups might occur during menstruation, for example.
  • GI infection. There’s some thought that having a stomach bug (gastroenteritis) may lead to IBS symptoms, even though the infection may be long gone. And some research indicates that IBS might even be caused by a GI infection. One study found that 78% of IBS patients had bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine.
  • Medication. Antibiotics may also trigger IBS symptoms.

Next week: How do you know if you really have IBS?

  • Marck

    I lived with IBS for most of my adult life, and so have my siblings. The cure for me was starting on a drug to lower my cholesterol. They had a side-effect of constipation (although this is not why I started on taking them). This class of drugs are called “statins” and I have used Lipitor, Gemfibrozil, and Simvastatin. All have been equally effective. I have to remind myself to drink plenty of liquids, because those drugs can cause hard stool. But, for me, I’d rather have this than loose, unpredictable bowel movements! It works for me.

  • Peppy1

    My husband and our son-in-law both have fibromyalgia, and one of the primary afflictions of it is IBS. The only thing our son-in-law has found to help him is a warmer climate; he has much less trouble in Texas, where he lives now, than when he was in western Oregon. My husband has yet to find anything that helps, even the new fibromyalgia medications.

  • pattipuppy

    I’m 66 years old now and had suffered with IBS in my younger years. Around 45 I started to get the stomach cramps and missed work because of them. I had trouble walking and if I did it was to the bathroom, which seemed a million miles away at times. I went to my doctor and he couldn’t find anything and never mentioned IBS, I brought it to his attention years later. I have been free of the systoms for a few years now but I do have bouts with it when I over do my love of nuts, all kinds. It will usually last two to three days. I do know what it is and it seems more tolerable just knowing.

  • Dan

    I am a 57 yr old male and have suffered with ibs since I was in my teens. I have noticed that greasy foods or highly spicy foods or peppers really set me off. Stress plays a big part in my flare-ups also. I have also noticed whatever i eat for breakfast kind of sets the tone for the day. My typical breakfast consists of cottage cheese with unsweetened peaches and some oat bran flakes mixed in. Hey might not sound good but it works for me.

  • Michael.Massing

    Replacing refined carbs with mostly vegetables and some whole grains did wonders for me. A condition I’d come to think of as chronic essentially disappeared. Best to all, M.

  • susanrice47

    I first had IBS symptoms about 20 or 25 years ago. It took me a long time (years) to figure out how to deal with it. This is what works for me: don’t eat too much at one time; eat plenty of veggies (which also prevents heartburn) and whole grains; take a fiber supplement every day.

  • acampbell

    Hi susanrice47,

    Besides your helpful advice, you make an important point when it comes to IBS: sometimes it take time to find out what really works for you in terms of managing symptoms. And what works for one person may not always work for someone else. Sounds like vegetables and whole grains help, though!

  • shirley feagin

    If you have IBS why would your DR. tell you to take more fiber each day?

  • acampbell

    Hi shirley,

    Depending on what your symptoms are, fiber may actually help. Some people with IBS have constipation, so getting more fiber helps with this. If diarrhea is more the issue, taking soluble fiber, such as the kind found in Metamucil, can help.

  • Lynda

    Where to begin? I have had IBS since my late 20’s. Suffered with it for years until I went into menopause and went on HRT. the IBS went completely away until I stopped hormones 7 years later.Then it was back. Fiber kills me, whole grains, are bad.. nuts are bad. Recently, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. I immediately went on Low carb/high fat diet and went from 138 lbs to 110 in 5 months. The breakfasts of bacon caused my IBS to flare up for months. Recently, my daughter in law was killed in a horrific car accident, leaving my son with a year old baby. Needless to say my blood glucose levels went up but worse than that was the pain and cramping from IBS. I could barely stand up straight. Sweating and shaky, and alternating between running to the bathroom and not going at all. The bloating was unbelievable. I’ve tried everything..Imodium (which does help) and different probiotics, which were so-so. Finally got relief from the cramping and bloating with a product I found on Amazon. Not sure if I’m allowed to mention it here, but it has been like a miracle for me. It’s called Digestive Advantage Intensive Bowel Support. It had 200+ reviews and I read them all before going to the drugstore to purchase this. I can honestly say it has worked and I’ll never be without it again. I felt i needed to share this. It may or may not work for you, but I feel 98% better after suffering for nearly 3 months. Taking 2 pills per day and then will switch to one a day. So easy. Does not affect my BG levels at all.NO side effects. Just relief.

  • Lenora

    I am 46 years old and have been suffering with a combination of IBS and Diabetes. The Doctor prescribed Metformin, but I am not keen on medication, or the side effects of this medication. I have messed my pants on more than one occasion so I have learned to go to the washroom when I feel the urge. I was wondering if I need to take some medication for IBS in addition to the Metformin, although I am also taking Zoloft I am not sure what the side effects are. I am not feeling any cramping, gas yes, my but is sore since I have hemorrheids from many years ago.

  • acampbell

    Hi Lenora,

    Ironically, metformin’s side effects can include nausea, vomiting, bloating, and diarrhea, symptoms similar to IBS. For the most part, the side effects are usually temporary. However, I’d suggest talking to your doctor about whether metformin is the best diabetes medication choice for you, given your IBS. You might also discuss other treatment approaches for IBS, which could include medication, changes in diet, probiotics, and stress reduction (or a combination of therapies).

  • Carol

    Hi, Lenora,
    I have had IBS for about 8-9 years. Developed it after having a “bully” boss. Now have fibro, chronic daily headaches and most recently diabetes. My Doctor from the International Diabetes Center here in MN could not put me on Metformin due to my IBS. He started me on Glimepiride. It has been effective in keeping my numbers low. I also am on Welbutron (sp). I also take Opium Tincture for my IBS. It is the only thing I have found that has allowed me to leave the house and have a “life”. I can walk the dog, go to the grocery store without 3 trips to the bathroom if god forbid they move product around in the store and I can’t find it, go to the movie or the theater. It is expensive and I hit the “donut hole” in July and it costs $600.00 a bottle, but I can make the bottle last 3 months. This IBS is something. I travelled for my work. I had to go on disability because I could no longer travel without “marking” my territory. I hope the 2 suggestions for meds help.

  • Shelia Melvin Gibson

    I am new to this IBS thing Only about 4 months still cant figure out what I can eat awful bloating gas and the big D cant stay out of the bathroom cant go anywhere my son is getting Married in just a little over a month and we are going on a week cruise for that so dont know how thats going to work I will prob be stuck in my room all week and also being a Diabetic I really dont know what to eat have lost 12 pounds that I cant afford to lose I am skinny already please need help

    • Connie

      My advice, based on my own experience and that of my relatives, is this. Find relief, in days sometimes, by going on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. It came into wide use in the 1920’s when medications had to be foods. It still works! We now eat a lot like my grandparents did in the 50s and 60s. is where I started and ended with no diarrhea/constipation, no pain, weight loss and feeling in control of my body once again. Many sources.