Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Gastroenterologists at Saint Luke's specialize in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). 

What is IBS?

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

Outline of man showing gastrointestinal system. People who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have digestive tracts that react abnormally to certain substances or to stress. This leads to symptoms like cramps, gas, bloating, pain, constipation, and diarrhea. Sometimes called “spastic colon,” IBS is a common condition that is not a disease, but rather a group of symptoms that happen together.

IBS—a motility problem

The muscle movement that passes food through the digestive tract is called motility. When you have IBS, the normal motility of the digestive tract (especially the colon) is disrupted. Motility may speed up, slow down, or become irregular. If stool passes too quickly through the colon, not enough water is absorbed from it. Loose, watery stools (diarrhea) can result. If stool passes through the colon too slowly, too much water is absorbed and the stool becomes hard and dry (constipation). Also, stool and gas may back up and cause painful pressure and cramping. There is no single test that can diagnose IBS. It is a group of symptoms that help your healthcare provider with the diagnosis. Often multiple blood, stool, radiologic tests, or even colonoscopy are performed in the evaluation of people suspected to have IBS. These are done primarily to make sure that there are no other illnesses that can account for your symptoms. 

What causes IBS?

A great deal of research has been done on IBS, but the cause is still not known. Some of the possible factors include: 

  • Smoking, eating certain foods, or drinking alcohol or caffeinated drinks can cause, or "trigger," symptoms of IBS.

  • Although no one knows for sure, IBS may be caused by a problem with the nerves or muscles in your digestive tract.

  • There is also some evidence that certain bacteria found after a severe gastroinstestinal infection in the small intestine and colon may cause IBS.

  • While stress and anxiety worsen the symptoms of IBS, it is not believed to be the cause. 

What you can do

Recommendations include:

  • Certain medicines may help regulate the working of your digestive tract. Your healthcare provider may prescribe one or more for you.

  • Medicine can’t cure IBS, but it may help manage the symptoms.

  • Because some medicines may make IBS worse, don’t take any medicine, especially laxatives, unless your healthcare provider prescribes it for you.

  • Your healthcare provider may suggest some lifestyle changes to help control your IBS. Two of the most important are changing your diet and managing stress. If diet changes are suggested, ask for nutritional guidance from a dietitian so you maintain a healthy nutritional balance in your food intake. 

Diet and Lifestyle Tips for IBS

Diet and Lifestyle Tips for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Woman drinking glass of water.

Your healthcare professional may suggest some lifestyle changes to help control your IBS. Changing your diet and managing stress are two of the most important. Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions and try some of the suggestions below.

Change your diet

Your diet may be an important cause of IBS symptoms. You may want to try the following:

  • Pay attention to what foods bother you, and avoid them. For example, dairy products are hard for some people to digest.

  • Drink 6 to 8 glasses of water a day.

  • Avoid caffeine and tobacco. These are muscle stimulants and can affect the working of your digestive tract.

  • Avoid alcohol, which can irritate your digestive tract and make your symptoms worse.

  • Eat more fiber if constipation is a problem. Fiber makes the stool softer and easier to pass through the colon.

Reduce stress

If stress or anxiety makes your IBS symptoms worse, learning how to manage stress may help you feel better. Try these tips:

  • Identify the causes of stress in your life.

  • Learn new ways to cope with them.

  • Regular exercise is a great way to relieve stress. It can also help ease constipation.

Saint Luke's GI Specialists

The experts at Saint Luke’s GI Specialists are a referral-based practice that diagnoses and treats diseases of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon and rectum, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and biliary system. We offer multidisciplinary care in four convenient, patient-friendly offices and outpatient surgical centers.