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IBS

Updated 30 July 2018

Stop believing these 5 IBS myths

'IBS is not an important condition; it's is all in your head.' We bust this and other myths about IBS.

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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a recurring, chronic gastrointestinal disorder. It's characterised by abdominal pain or discomfort, and changes to bowel habit or consistency. 

There are four different types of IBS: 

1. IBS-C: IBS-Constipation
2. IBS-M: IBS-Mixed (constipation and diarrhoea)
3. IBS-D: IBS-Diarrhoea 
4. IBS-U: IBS-Unspecified (final diagnosis hasn’t yet been made)

Although IBS is a medical disorder, there are still many myths that do the rounds. We busted five:

1. The myth: You don’t need to take IBS seriously – it’s not an important condition

The truth: Although IBS is a fairly common condition, it's often misunderstood. According to Dr William Chey, a gastroenterologist at the University of Michigan Health System, “Many physicians believe that IBS is not an important condition because it does not affect a person's lifespan." However, IBS can have a significantly negative impact on someone's quality of life, which is why Dr Chey says IBS should be taken seriously.  

For example, IBS-D has negatively affected this 61-year-old man's life. He* says, “I have had to deal with IBS-D for about 15 years. My first episode was at a football game and I didn't make it to the bathroom in time. Very embarrassing and traumatic. I thought, ‘What just happened?’ Since then I have had other episodes while travelling that have either been disasters or close calls.” 

Kirstin Kadé, from Taste and See blog, an MSc Nutrition student and IBS sufferer, wrote in an article for HBC Magazine, “The pain and discomfort caused by IBS is highly variable between people and even within the same person on different days and times. Some people find it to be slightly irritating, whilst others can find IBS symptoms to be rather debilitating. This can make symptom management and life in general pretty difficult.”

She adds that IBS “can significantly reduce health-related quality of life, and has an impact on work, social activities, and the ability to live life without fear of having to find the nearest toilet.” 

Doctor and patient in consultation

2. The myth: IBS is all in your head

The truth: IBS is a function disorder, which means a person usually displays no visual signs of an illness. According to the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, although IBS does not display any obvious symptoms it is still a medical disorder. They add that although stress, anxiety and depression may increase symptoms, these are not responsible for causing IBS. 

For this 50-year-old woman, symptoms (she frequently suffers from constipation) are evident and embarrassing. "I don't feel comfortable having to have a bowel movement in public restrooms or at friends’ homes because of the noise from gas and the smell," she* said

3. The myth: Stress causes IBS

The truth: Unfortunately the exact cause of IBS is not completely understood, but it’s believed to be a result of psychosocial and environmental factors, and gut physiology. These factors work together to cause the symptoms of IBS (bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, constipation and gas). Although stress is a psychosocial factor and may increase a person's symptoms, it's important to understand that stress does not cause someone to develop IBS.  

Stressed man at work

4. The myth: You’ll have eat bland food for the rest of your life

The truth: "A lot of patients with IBS end up on these very bland diets, and I think most of the time it is not justified," says Dr Chey. He asks his patients to keep a food diary and make notes of any symptoms that develop.  

"At the end of a two-week period, it's possible to get a fairly good idea about whether there are specific trigger foods associated with the onset of symptoms. Those foods then can be easily eliminated from a patient's diet." 

Harvard Health Publishing says common foods that trigger IBS symptoms include gas-producing food (such as cabbage or broccoli), caffeine, alcohol, dairy, fatty foods (such as butter, cheese and avocados), raw fruits, and food, gum or beverages that contain sorbitol. 

5. The myth: There is no treatment for IBS

The truth: Dr Chey says IBS can be managed with counselling, dietary and lifestyle intervention and medication. "Treating infrequent or mild symptoms with over-the-counter medication is effective for most patients," he says. "If symptoms are persistent, however, it's important to see your physician because the excessive use of over-the-counter medications can actually lead to more gastrointestinal symptoms.”

Ways you can manage IBS symptoms: 

  • Follow a healthy diet
  • Do regular exercise
  • Manage stress 
  • Take probiotics and fibre supplement
  • Use medications

*Names have been withheld by request. 

Image credit: iStock