Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Everything You Need to Know About IBS

Medically Reviewed by Madeline Hubbard, RN, BSN

Photo Courtesy: Moyo Studio/E+/Getty Images

Irritable bowel syndrome is a common disorder of the gastrointestinal tract that impacts the large intestine. It typically begins in late adolescence or adulthood, and, although it impacts people of all genders, it is twice as likely to affect women than men. Often referred to as IBS, the syndrome can cause intestinal discomfort and other uncomfortable symptoms, but it's not clear if IBS causes permanent damage to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract or colon. Typically, careful management of one’s diet, stress levels, and lifestyle can improve the symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome.

What Is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome is not a disease — rather, it's a collection of symptoms that occur concurrently. IBS is categorized by a change in gastrointestinal (GI) tract function, making it a functional gastrointestinal tract disorder. Functional GI disorders produce frequent symptoms but do not cause lasting damage to the GI tract. IBS should not be confused with IBD, otherwise known as inflammatory bowel disease. People with IBS have structurally typical bowel tissue, while those with IBD do not.

What Causes IBS?

The distinct cause of irritable bowel syndrome is unknown. Healthcare professionals believe the cause may be a combination of environmental, physical, and genetic factors. Furthermore, it is possible that the connection between the brain and the gastrointestinal system, also known as the brain-gut interaction, plays a role in this disorder.

Conditions associated with IBS include:

  • Motility changes in the GI tract, including spasms
  • Hypersensitivity of the bowels
  • History of psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and panic disorder
  • Infection in the stomach caused by bacteria
  • An overgrowth of otherwise normal bacteria in the small intestine, known as SIBO
  • A change in hormones during menstruation, menopause, or ovulation
  • Sensitivity to certain foods
  • Stressful events, including trauma or abuse

Symptoms Associated With IBS

The symptoms associated with IBS can range from mild to severe, with the majority of patients experiencing mild to moderate symptoms. Symptoms vary greatly from patient to patient, so while some individuals will experience cyclical symptoms that worsen over time only to dissipate for a while, others will experience symptoms on a more consistent basis.

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome may include:

  • Pain or cramping in the abdomen
  • Weight loss
  • Gas and bloating
  • Feeling of fullness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bleeding from the rectum
  • Loose or watery stools
  • Constipation
  • Bouts of diarrhea followed by constipation or vice versa
  • Difficulty controlling bowel movements

Predominately, individuals with IBS experience constipation, or diarrhea, or a mix of both gastrointestinal symptoms.