IBS is a group of intestinal symptoms that can include abdominal cramping, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and gas. The cause of IBS is not clear but may be related to an overly sensitive colon or immune system.

According to research from 2021, 7 to 16 percent of Americans experience irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms.

The condition affects more women and young people. Some people with IBS have minor symptoms. However, for others, the symptoms are significant and disrupt daily life.

Learn about IBS, its symptoms, causes, triggers, and treatment.

IBS is also known as spastic colon, irritable colon, mucous colitis, and spastic colitis. It is a separate condition from inflammatory bowel disease and isn’t related to other bowel conditions.

IBS is a group of intestinal symptoms that typically occur together. The symptoms vary in severity and duration from person to person.

One overview from 2018 indicates that to diagnose it, healthcare professionals look for symptoms that have occurred at least three days per month for the last three months.

IBS can cause intestinal damage in some cases. However, that is not common.

According to a 2022 study, IBS doesn’t increase your risk of gastrointestinal cancers. But it can still have a significant effect on your life.

The symptoms of IBS typically include:

  • cramping
  • abdominal pain
  • bloating and gas
  • constipation
  • diarrhea

It’s not uncommon for people with IBS to have episodes of both constipation and diarrhea. Symptoms such as bloating and gas typically go away after you have a bowel movement.

Symptoms of IBS aren’t always persistent. They can resolve, only to come back. However, some people do have continuous symptoms.

IBS pain

IBS pain may feel like cramping. With this cramping, you will also have at least two of the following experiences:

  • some relief of pain after a bowel movement
  • a change in how often you have a bowel movement
  • changes in the way your stools look

Your doctor may be able to diagnose IBS based on your symptoms. They may also take one or more of the following steps to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms:

  • have you adopt a certain diet or cut out specific food groups for a time to rule out any food allergies
  • have a stool sample examined to rule out infection
  • have blood tests done to check for anemia and rule out celiac disease
  • perform a colonoscopy

Your doctor will typically only order a colonoscopy if they suspect that your symptoms are being caused by colitis, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease), or cancer.

There is currently no cure for IBS. Treatment is aimed at symptom relief.

Initially, your doctor may have you make certain lifestyle changes. These home remedies are typically suggested before the use of medication.

Home remedies for IBS

Certain home remedies or lifestyle changes may help to relieve your IBS symptoms without the use of medication. Examples of these lifestyle changes include:

  • participating in regular physical exercise
  • cutting back on caffeinated beverages, since caffeine stimulates the intestines
  • eating smaller meals
  • minimizing stress (talk therapy may help)
  • taking probiotics (“good” bacteria normally found in the intestines) to help relieve gas and bloating
  • avoiding deep-fried or spicy foods

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When to see a doctor

Consider talking with your doctor if you have symptoms lasting longer than a few days, or if symptoms become a common occurrence.

You should also speak with your doctor if you experience sudden changes or serious symptoms, such as:

  • rectal bleeding
  • persistent pain that isn’t relieved from passing gas or a bowel movement
  • weight loss
  • decreased appetite
  • nausea and vomiting

These symptoms could indicate a more serious condition, such as colon cancer.

For some people, dietary changes can go a long way in helping ease symptoms.

A common diet for doctors and registered dietitians to recommend for IBS is the low FODMAP diet. A FODMAP is a kind of carbohydrate found inside of certain foods. Studies have shown links between FODMAPs and some common digestive issues.

Because the symptoms of IBS vary among people with the condition, approaches to dietary changes need to vary.

If your symptoms do not improve through home remedies, such as lifestyle or dietary changes, your doctor may suggest the use of medications. Different people can respond differently to the same medication, so you may need to work with your doctor to find the right medication for you.

As with all medications, when considering a new treatment option, it’s important to tell your doctor what you are already taking, including herbal remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) medications. This will help your doctor avoid any medication that could interact with what you are already taking.

Some drugs are used to treat all symptoms of IBS, while other drugs are focused on specific symptoms. Drugs that are used include:

If your main IBS symptom is constipation, there are two drugs recommended by the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG):

  • linaclotide
  • lubiprostone

According to a 2014 study, although there are many ways to treat IBS, the exact cause of IBS is unknown.

Possible causes include an overly sensitive colon or immune system. Postinfectious IBS is caused by a previous bacterial infection in the gastrointestinal tract. The varied possible causes make IBS difficult to prevent.

The physical processes involved in IBS can also vary, but may consist of:

  • slowed or spastic movements of the colon, causing painful cramping
  • abnormal serotonin levels in the colon, affecting motility and bowel movements
  • an imbalance of bacteria in the digestive tract

IBS risk factors

Per one 2017 study, risk factors for IBS may include:

For many people, the key to managing IBS symptoms is to track and avoid triggers. This 2017 study notes that certain foods, as well as stress and anxiety, can be triggers for IBS symptoms for many people.

Certain foods are common triggers for many people with IBS. However, some of these foods may have a greater effect on you than on others. It may help to keep a food diary for a while to learn which foods are triggers for you.

You might find it useful to look ahead and anticipate upcoming events which could increase your levels of stress and anxiety. This can give you time to either plan to avoid these situations when possible or develop strategies to limit stress and anxiety.

The automatic movement, or motility, of your digestive system is controlled to a great degree by your nervous system. Stress can affect your nerves, making your digestive system overactive. If you have IBS, your colon may be overly responsive to even slight disruption of your digestive system. It is also believed that IBS is affected by the immune system, which is also affected by stress.

IBS doesn’t affect the weight of everyone with the condition. Weight loss is uncommon with IBS. If you experience weight loss with suspected IBS symptoms, consider calling your doctor to rule out any other causes.

However, IBS can potentially lead to weight loss if you don’t eat enough calories to maintain your weight in an attempt to avoid symptoms. Cramping may come more often right after you eat. If frequent diarrhea is one of your symptoms, your body may not be getting all of the nutrients from the food you eat. Your weight may decrease as a result of this.

IBS with diarrhea is a specific type of IBS. It primarily affects your large intestine. Common symptoms of IBS with diarrhea include frequent stools and nausea. Some people with IBS with diarrhea occasionally lose bowel control.

IBS with constipation is a type of IBS that typically affects adolescents and young adults. Stools that are hard and less frequent, as well as constipation, are the most common symptoms of this type of IBS.

What are the symptoms of IBS in women?

Women may tend to have symptoms around the time of menstruation, or they may have more symptoms during this time. Menopausal women have fewer symptoms than women who are still menstruating. Some women have also reported that certain symptoms increase during pregnancy.

What are the symptoms of IBS in men?

Symptoms of IBS in men are the same as the symptoms in women. However, a lot fewer men report their symptoms and seek treatment.

What are foods to avoid with IBS?

Managing your diet when you have IBS may take a little extra time but is often worth the effort. Modifying amounts or eliminating certain foods such as dairy, fried foods, indigestible sugars, and beans may help to reduce different symptoms.

For some people, adding spices and herbs such as ginger, peppermint, and chamomile has helped to reduce some IBS symptoms.

What are the complications of IBS?

Poor quality of life. Some people with moderate to severe IBS may have a poor quality of life. A 2018 study reported that 24 percent of people with IBS missed work in the last week due to IBS symptoms, and 87 percent experienced reduced work productivity.

Mood disorders. According to one 2015 study, having IBS might increase your risk of depression, anxiety, sleep disorder, or bipolar disorder. Depression and anxiety can also make IBS worse.

IBS symptoms will present differently in different people. In people who menstruate, IBS symptoms may increase around the time of menstruation.

The exact cause of IBS is unknown, but the condition has been linked with certain foods and mood disorders. It is important to track your flare-ups to help understand your triggers.

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