IBS: debunking the myths
We bust some common myths about irritable bowel syndrome and share more about how to manage the condition
What is IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome, also known as IBS, is a common and often painful long-term condition that affects your digestive system. Symptoms of IBS can get worse or better over time, and often come and go in flare ups. For most people, IBS is a lifelong condition.
Management of irritable bowel syndrome varies from person to person, but it often involves changes to your diet, finding ways to manage stress (which can exacerbate your symptoms), medication, and some adjustments to your daily life. If you're dealing with troublesome gut issues, it's a good idea to speak with a consultant specialist – who will typically be a gastroenterologist. They can help find the right treatment for you.
The symptoms of IBS
The most common symptoms of IBS include stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation. Each person is different, and some will experience just one of the above symptoms, while others will experience them all. While some people may be affected for just a few days, others may experience symptoms for months at a time.
There are many conditions with symptoms that overlap with IBS. A specialist can help you to identify whether you are living with IBS or something else.
Bouts of IBS can often be triggered by periods of stress or eating certain foods – but this is not the underlying cause for the condition. Some people find the symptoms of IBS extremely debilitating, while others experience less severe symptoms that can be managed more easily.
There are many myths about irritable bowel syndrome which can make it tricky to understand how best to manage it. Some people think IBS is all about your diet, while others think misunderstand the key symptoms of the condition.
We explain some of these and a bit more about the reality of living with IBS below.
Myth one: Diet changes can cure IBS
Some people think that IBS is caused by a bad diet and can be cured by making dietary improvements. Although eating certain foods can exacerbate IBS or bring on certain symptoms, IBS is a digestive condition, which means that diet changes won’t cure IBS. In some people, however, diet changes may relieve some of the distressing symptoms.
Some people with irritable bowel syndrome choose to reduce their intake of legumes, such as peas and beans, as well as certain vegetables and sugar substitutes to ease gas, bloating, and discomfort. Many people find dairy products, such as milk and butter, make their symptoms worse.
What works for one person with IBS might not work for another, so it can be a bit of trial and error while you find the right diet for you. It's often a good idea to work with your consultant or a dietitian who specialises in gut health to create a personalised dietary plan that suits your needs. Your specialist can help you figure out what's best for your gut and make it as easy as possible to enjoy your meals without a flare up.
Myth two: IBS is just a stomach ache
While many think the main symptom of IBS is stomach ache, pain in your stomach is just one of the many symptoms you might struggle with. Others can include diarrhoea, constipation and abdominal bloating. IBS typically results in a combination of bowel problems that can cause more complications in your daily life.
People with irritable bowel syndrome often struggle with feelings of anxiety. One major factor in this is that the symptoms of IBS can be unpredictable. This unpredictability can lead to anxiety about when and where symptoms might strike. The nature of IBS symptoms, like the sudden need to go to the toilet, can be embarrassing, and worrying about these situations happening in public can make things worse. IBS can also interfere with your social life and plans. Cancelling outings or avoiding social events because of your gut can lead to feelings of isolation and social anxiety.
IBS is not just a stomach ache. It can be very difficult to manage physically and emotionally, but there are lots of treatment options available.
Myth three: IBS always causes diarrhoea
While diarrhoea is one symptom of the illness, irritable bowel syndrome can also cause long periods of constipation. In fact, it can even cause both problems concurrently. Although diarrhoea-predominant IBS is the most common form, sufferers can also have constipation-predominant IBS or alternating constipation and diarrhoea. So, while it does cause diarrhoea, it can also cause constipation.
Constipation is a common digestive condition that causes infrequent bowel movements or difficulty going to the toilet. It happens when the stool in your colon becomes dry and hard, making it challenging to move through your intestines. Constipation can cause pain when going to the toilet.
Myth four: Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are the same
IBS and IBD are often confused, but they are different conditions. Inflammatory bowel disease can be caused by a number of conditions, including Crohn’s disease, colitis, allergic reactions or infection. It refers to chronic inflammation in the large intestine – which doesn’t occur in irritable bowel syndrome. However, people can have both IBS and IBD separately.
Myth five: IBS is a psychological problem
Although IBS can be exacerbated by stress, it is a functional disorder, which means that the condition exists on its own and is induced by dysfunction within your digestive system. Psychological problems may develop as a side effect of IBS, but they are certainly not the cause. As mentioned above, due to the unpredictable nature of IBS and the discomfort involved, IBS sufferers can develop anxiety and depression.
Myth six: IBS can’t be diagnosed
Although IBS can be difficult to diagnose, it is possible. Indeed, IBS is often diagnosed after doctors have performed tests to rule out other conditions, such as infection or disease, that present themselves similarly. The Rome Criteria is most commonly used to diagnose IBS.
This is a set of guidelines that doctors use to help diagnose certain digestive disorders, especially when they involve issues like abdominal pain and changes in your bathroom habits. To meet the Rome Criteria, you need to have certain symptoms that fit a specific pattern for a certain amount of time. These criteria help doctors narrow down what might be going on in your tummy.
Get help for IBS
You can book online directly to arrange a consultation with one of our gastroenterologists to talk about irritable bowel syndrome and your treatment plan or, if you want further advice before booking, give us a call directly.
More articlesView all
How do I book an appointment?
If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on this subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Circle Hospital.