Irritating Irritable Bowel Syndrome (Part 1)

Shhh…irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, isn’t exactly a topic that one brings up at the dinner table or during a business meeting. It might even be a topic that, if you have IBS, you don’t talk about with anyone except maybe your physician. But if you’re part of the 20% of Americans who live with IBS (and yes, some of them also have diabetes), chances are you welcome any information that may just help relieve some of your symptoms. Let’s take a closer look at this condition and find out what’s being done to help those who have it.

What is IBS?
IBS isn’t a disease. It’s not the same thing as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or Crohn disease. And while some who have IBS would liken it to a disease, it’s actually a condition or disorder that can cause extreme discomfort, inconvenience, and even embarrassment.

One in five Americans has IBS, and women are more likely than men to have it. IBS can start early: About 50% of those who have it are diagnosed before the age of 35. In the past, this condition was called colitis, mucous colitis, spastic colon, or spastic bowel, but the proper name is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). By the way, gastroparesis[1], a type of neuropathy[2] that can occur in people with diabetes, isn’t the same as irritable bowel syndrome. Gastroparesis may cause diarrhea and/or constipation in some, but it’s primarily a disorder of the stomach, whereas IBS mostly affects the large intestine.

Ask anyone who has IBS to name some of the symptoms and you’ll likely hear a common thread:

Many people report difficulty having a bowel movement, with an ability to pass only a small amount of stool or else pass a lot of mucus. Those who are more likely to have diarrhea report a frequent urge to “go.” Symptoms can wax and wane, too. Someone may go for months or even years without symptoms. And symptoms tend to fade or subside as one gets older.

Is IBS Serious?
IBS can certainly be debilitating for people. Many report having to plan their day around finding a bathroom. Others shun social activities for fear of having an accident, while some complain of pain and discomfort. But there’s no evidence that IBS leads to any serious problems or disease, such as inflammatory bowel disease or colon cancer.

What Causes IBS?
You’d think that when so many people have a condition, whether it be IBS or even diabetes, the cause would be pretty obvious. However, no one really knows what causes IBS. The intestinal tract is connected to the brain via the nervous system. Stress, hormones, neurotransmitters, and even the immune system may play a role in disrupting or interfering with communication between the brain and the intestine. Because of this, the muscles lining the intestinal wall can contract or even spasm, leading to cramps and pain. Furthermore, the contents of the intestines may move through either too quickly, leading to diarrhea, or too slowly, leading to constipation. Basically, things get out of sync.

Researchers also believe that some people have “sensitive intestines” (now who would have thought intestines could be sensitive?). In other words, some people with IBS apparently have intestines that react more strongly to certain factors, such as:

Next week: How do you know if you really have IBS?

  1. gastroparesis:
  2. neuropathy:

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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

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