Causes and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) describes a functional gastrointestinal dysfunction. Further terms are irritable bowel, irritable colon, or nervous stomach.

Irritable bowel syndrome is a functional intestinal disease. That means the function of the bowel is disrupted, but on the actual organ nothing is damaged.

The diagnose irritable bowel syndrome or rather the exclusion of other possible intestinal diseases, there are several different tests and procedures that can take place. Gastroscopy and colonoscopy, ultrasound, and blood tests are all within standard diagnostic procedure. 

Causes of irritable bowel syndrome

The search for possible causes of irritable bowel syndrome has become a challenge, because there isn't a sole reason that IBS occurs. And, it has been shown that sensitivities toward certain foods can cause many IBS symptoms.

Real food allergies are rare, so it's more likely that patients with IBS suffer from at least one food intolerance, with fructose intolerance being a common culprit in which the symptoms of IBS appear as a result of improperly absorbed fructose. The symptoms specifically occur after certain foods have been consumed. Stomach aches, flatulence, and diarrhea occur with a fructose intolerance, particularly after the consumption of fruit or other sugary meals.

Studies show that of the 74% patients with irritable bowel syndrome and fructose malabsorption, a significant improvement of symptoms occurs when fructose is avoided in the diet. Also, the elimination of FODMAP foods can reduce the symptoms of IBS.

Overall, IBS sufferers can greatly increase quality of life by being selective in their food choices.

Typical IBS symptoms

Approximately 5-11% of the global population suffers from irritable bowel syndrome.

Typical symptoms are reoccurring flatulence with or without bloating, constipation, unpleasant feelings of fullness and belching, heartburn, and nausea. Stomach aches are common and experienced mostly as a heavy weight, stabbing, or spasm after bowel movement, frequent bowel movements, or the feeling that the bowels are not fully emptied. Often the symptoms will diminish on the evening and are more prevalent during the daytime. It's often common for a person's IBS symptoms to change and be inconsistent day-to-day.

Different types of IBS: 

  • Patients with irritable bowel diarrhea as a main symptom.
  • Patients with irritable bowel constipation as a main symptom.
  • Patients with an irritable bowel where constipation and diarrhoea alternate.

All types of IBS can include gassiness and bloating. 

Other symptoms, that do not have anything to do with the gastrointestinal tract, but often occur with irritable bowel syndrome, are frequent headaches or migraines, back pain, joint pain, sleep disorders, anxiety, and depressive feelings.

When do symptoms like stomach ache, flatulence, diarrhea, and constipation actually point toward irritable bowel syndrome?

As a rule, all three following criteria have to be filled for the diagnose irritable bowel syndrome:

1. The complaints have to be chronic, therefore have been there for at least three months and a doctor and the patient clearly state that the symptoms originate from the bowels. The irritable bowel symptoms can often be accompanied by a change of bowel movements (diarrhea and/or constipation) but there are exceptions to this rule.

2. The symptoms are so clearly noticeable that the patient has a reduced quality of life. There are certain occasions, such as stress or improper diet, that cause similar symptoms but are not actually associated with IBS. 

3. No other illness may exist that causes symptoms simular to those from an irritable bowel syndrome.