What Causes IBS?
Unfortunately, no-one knows what causes irritable bowels. We do know that, as mentioned just now, many patients find that their symptoms begin just after a bad stomach bug.
This link has been confirmed by studies of mass outbreaks of food or water poisoning.
Gastroenteritis, E. coli, and Campylobacter
One study examined an outbreak of gastroenteritis caused by E. coli and Campylobacter in contaminated water in Walkerton, Ontario. The outbreak was so serious it killed six people.
Of the other Walkerton residents, 2069 took part in the study and were only accepted if they did not have IBS already.
Two years after the outbreak a massive 36 percent of people who had suffered from gastroenteritis was diagnosed with IBS, whereas just 10 percent of those who had escaped the contamination now had IBS.
Stomach Bugs and Gut Bacteria
It’s thought that a bad stomach bug may alter the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut that are so important for good digestion.
Additionally, billions of these bacteria may set up home in the small intestine, the first section of the bowel, when most of them are supposed to live only in the colon.
This is called SIBO – small intestinal bacterial overgrowth – and leads to diarrhea or constipation because of the gases given off by the bacteria as they munch on carbohydrates.
Antibiotics, Inflammation, and Gut Pain Sensitivity
Antibiotics may also be part of the cause, again because they could affect the delicate balance of bacteria in the gut and allow the bad bacteria to run impact.
It’s possible that mild inflammation (swelling) is a factor, particularly after an infection has caused inflammation as the body fights the germs.
If the inflammation in the bowel never completely disappears it might lead to IBS. This swelling is not to be confused with inflammatory bowel disease as it is so subtle it wouldn’t show up on a colonoscopy.
There’s been research to show that IBS patients may be more sensitive to gut pain (known as “visceral hypersensitivity”) which means that they may feel pain or discomfort from sensations in the bowel that healthy people wouldn’t notice.
Stress or Anxiety
For a long time, doctors thought that IBS was caused solely by stress or anxiety and labeled it as psychosomatic or all in the head, some buried emotional pain showing up as physical pain.
However, doctors today agree that stress does not cause IBS and it is not a psychological illness.
There’s no doubt that many sufferers find their symptoms are made worse by stress, but that applies to many other illnesses too, it’s not a unique feature of IBS.
What Are the Symptoms of IBS?
The symptoms of IBS are:
- Pain or discomfort in the stomach.
- Diarrhea, with multiple bowel movements per day (often in the morning or after a meal).
- An urgent need for a bowel movement with the possibility of bowel incontinence.
- Constipation, with stools that are hard and/or difficult to pass.
- Feeling like you have not emptied your bowel fully (known as “incomplete evacuation”).
- Mucus in the stool.
- Excess gas.
Some of these IBS symptoms may be relieved by a bowel movement, particularly stomach cramps. The intensity of these symptoms can vary widely from person to person.
Some people will have mild gut problems that can be managed relatively easily, but others may face severe pain, extreme constipation, and diarrhea that is so bad they are unable to live a normal life.
Women may find that their symptoms are much worse just before or during their period due to the influence of hormones.
As well as all the physical symptoms many people struggle with the emotional impact of their illness. Making a desperate run for the bathroom can be immensely embarrassing, and plenty of people react childishly to any talk of poop problems.
This is compounded by some old-fashioned, out of date doctors who see IBS as a mild problem that affects uptight, anxious types who need to relax…