Girl holding her stomach

—Sal R.*, University of Windsor, Ontario

IBS is a disorder of the gastrointestinal system. As food is digested, the intestine contracts to move it through the gut; in IBS, these contractions become less coordinated and less effective. The symptoms include abdominal pain, cramping or spasms, and bloating. Some people also experience diarrhea, constipation, or both. It’s the most commonly diagnosed intestinal disorder.

An IBS diagnosis is made only after all other known possible causes of intestinal problems have been ruled out. These other problems could be infections with bacteria, viruses, or fungi; inflammation such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease; a blockage; or even appendicitis.

How does IBS show up?

At the onset of IBS, there’s usually a change in the frequency of the bowel movements and the consistency of the stool. Having a bowel movement relieves the abdominal pain. There’s usually no blood in the stool. I say “usually” because sometimes, when a person is constipated and strains too much, this may lead to a tear in the mucus membrane of the anus. These tears are called fissures, and they bleed, so a person may notice blood on the toilet paper or even in the water in the toilet bowl. This is usually not a cause for concern, though the fissures may hurt or itch. If you see blood in your stool, you should always consult a physician to make sure it’s nothing more serious. IBS is recurrent, occurring at least three days out of every month for a minimum of three months.

What causes IBS?

No one cause of IBS has been found. There’s some evidence of inflammation, but what causes that is unknown. IBS can occur after an intestinal infection, which disrupts the intestinal ecosystem, affecting the digestion of food. It can also be related to an overgrowth of bacteria, some food allergies, or sensitivity to lactose, gluten, or other sugars. There may even be a genetic predisposition.

Anxiety and chronic stress may also lead to symptoms of IBS, and certainly the demands related to attending university or college can be a source of stress. But really any kind of stress can lead to these symptoms.

Managing IBS

First, it’s important that you have a proper diagnosis and understand that this is a chronic disease. Try these lifestyle changes:

  • Modify your diet; remove gas-producing foods, lactose, and/or gluten. Tip: Try eliminating one of these foods at a time to see what’s helpful and what isn’t.
  • Increase your fibre intake; eat more raw vegetables or buy high-fibre products at the pharmacy. Drinking lots of fluids is important when you increase your fibre intake.
  • Increase your physical activity; it can help to get things moving.

If these measures aren’t helpful, then medication can help manage the constipation or diarrhea. Speak with your primary care physician or gastroenterologist about what’s right for you.

*Name changed