What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

6 minute read time
Medically reviewed by
Giorgio Napoli, MD
February 15, 2022

Once considered a psychosomatic disorder, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders that primary care physicians see. For some, the symptoms of irritable bowel are mild and don't interfere with daily life, while others find them debilitating. Read on for more information about IBS and how to combat its symptoms.

What Causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, also called spastic colon or spastic colitis, is a relatively common yet chronic condition that's characterized by fluctuating discomfort and abdominal pain. According to The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), IBS should be categorized as a syndrome, not a disease -  syndromes are considered a collection of symptoms with indistinct or tough-to-pin-down causes while a disease results from a specific defining cause.

IBS also affects more women than men (twice as many women as men) and is most common in young to middle-aged individuals. According to researchers, small intestine bacterial overgrowth may be a factor for some people. However, it's believed that a combination of causes can trigger symptoms. These include:


It's important to note that some or a combination of these causes can be the root of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Anxiety, depression, or difficult early life events such as physical and/or sexual abuse can also play a role in IBS causes.

Other possible causes of IBS include magnesium or zinc deficiency, heavy metal toxicity, or lack of digestive enzymes, which are important for digesting fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. This is important because when we eat, the enzymes, muscles, and nerves within the digestive tract manage the absorption of nutrients, gas, fluid levels, and the release of bowel movements. Researchers believe that the abnormal functioning of these could be the underlying cause of IBS symptoms.

IBS Symptoms

Irritable Bowel Syndrome causes a range of symptoms including abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, gas, and the urgency to have a bowel movement. Changes in the appearance of your poop such as color or texture may also occur. Individuals may experience backaches, lethargy, nausea, and incontinence, as well.

Living with IBS can be difficult for many due to persistent pain. For some, their bowel habits can be unpredictable, which can lead to a host of other conditions including anxiety, headaches, heart palpitations, fatigue, muscle aches, reduced sexual desire, and trouble sleeping.

While symptoms of IBS vary from person to person, it's common for women to have abdominal pain, cramps, and aches which are similar to those caused by the menstrual cycle. This is why for some women, their IBS symptoms improve during their period, while for others, the symptoms get worse.

It's important to recognize that weight loss is not a symptom of IBS. If you notice sudden weight loss without changing your eating habits, you should seek medical attention.

How Can Irritable Bowel Syndrome Be Diagnosed?

Even though millions of people suffer from this condition, IBS is still a difficult condition to diagnose. 

Since there are no tests to diagnose the condition, your doctor will typically record your medical and family history and then conduct a physical exam. Other tests may be requested to rule out additional conditions.

Your doctor will also ask you questions concerning your bowel movements, common triggers, certain foods that leave you feeling bloated or gassy. They may also ask for a stool test to analyze its shape, color, consistency, odor, presence of mucus, and so on.

The stool sample is also useful for examining bile, bleeding, or for the presence of parasites. It's also important for ruling out other conditions that share symptoms with IBS including Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis) and colon cancer. Your doctor may also take blood tests to rule out celiac disease, especially if you have diarrhea. Blood tests are also important for ruling out anemia, infection, and digestive diseases.

Once you've been cleared for other diseases, your doctor will use the Rome IV criteria to diagnose IBS. These criteria include weekly abdominal pain occurring over the past three months. You must also meet the following conditions before a diagnosis can be applied:


What Are The Types of IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome can be divided into three types based on the primary symptom experienced. This means that even if you and someone you know have IBS, your symptoms and types may be completely different. The following are three types of IBS:

Constipation Predominant IBS (IBS-C)

This type of IBS presents the following symptoms on regular basis:


Diarrhea Predominant IBS (IBS-D)

The diarrhea-predominant type of IBS presents the following symptoms:


Mixed/Alternating IBS (IBS-A)

The other IBS type is one where a person experiences a combination of IBS-C and IBS-D. This is often the most disruptive form of the condition as sufferers may experience both constipation and diarrhea in the same day, week, or month.

In order for this to be classified as IBS-A according to the Rome IV criteria, each stool change is experienced for 25 percent of all bowel movements. In other words, your stool has to alternate between hard, lumpy, loose, and watery.

IBS is a chronic condition, and many people alternate between these three types at some point. It's always a good idea to know which category you fall into (and to track this information, especially when transitioning from one to the other) to treat specific symptoms and understand the environmental stressors that may be triggering a flare-up.

How to Treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome

While it's true that IBS is not life-threatening, it can reduce the quality of life of those suffering from it.  With that, it's important to have a treatment plan in place to reduce symptoms.

As mentioned earlier, IBS is a collection of symptoms, and because it's multi-causal, there's no one-size-fits-all IBS treatment. In addition, and since your gut bacteria is unique to you, taking a personalized approach to your IBS treatment is key.


What you eat plays a huge role in how you feel, and since some foods have disease-fighting nutrients or disease-promoting factors, a treatment plan for IBS must include dietary changes.

Research shows that FODMAPs (an acronym for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) make IBS worse. This collection of short-chain carbohydrates is poorly absorbed by the gut, which in turn causes an irritable colon and makes symptoms worse.

A team of Australia-based researchers found that making dietary changes such as going on a low fodmap diet greatly helps relieve symptoms. By avoiding FODMAPs which include certain foods such as fatty foods, fructose (think high fructose corn syrup), and sugar alcohols (i.e. apples, beets, wheat, etc.) you'll be able to support your immune system and reduce flare-ups.

Your IBS symptoms may also be triggered by lactose intolerance, in which case you should avoid milk, cream cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. Since FODMAPs are carbohydrates, they're found in foods that are otherwise healthy including asparagus, garlic, onions, leeks, etc.

Before you panic, know this: The fodmap diet is an elimination-based diet and is only temporary. It consists of restriction, reintroduction, and personalization steps. The purpose of this is to understand which specific foods trigger more symptoms or make your IBS worse. By keeping a food diary, you'd also be able to track which foods are causing you pain and discomfort,  or changing your bowel habits.

There are many foods in the low fodmap diet that you can still enjoy during the restriction or elimination phase. These include brown rice, eggs, oats, olives, almond milk, grass-fed beef and lamb, free-range chicken, and most of your favorite veggies and fruits.

It's also important to eat smaller meals as this will prevent you from overeating and triggering flare-ups. Another benefit of eating smaller meals is that it allows your metabolism to run smoothly as large meals can clog your digestive system, and cause symptoms associated with IBS.

Lifestyle Changes

Treating your IBS also involves considering lifestyle factors that trigger symptoms or make them worse. Stress management is an important part of your treatment as stress, especially chronic stress, raises inflammation and influences hormone levels. This, in turn, suppresses digestion and causes abdominal pain and other symptoms associated with gastrointestinal disorders such as delayed bowel movement.

Exercise is also another important part of your treatment. Regular exercise is known to help digestive health. A study in 2011 in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that increased physical activity improves IBS symptoms. Another benefit of exercise is that it increases the level of serotonin and dopamine in your brain. This boosts brain health and improves your mood.

When to See a Doctor

If your IBS symptoms are a common occurrence, or they're so severe they interfere with your daily life, then it's time to see a doctor. When it comes to IBS, many people suffer in silence because they're too embarrassed to talk about their bathroom habits.

However, seeking professional help is important for two reasons. For one, it will confirm whether or not you actually have IBS so you can find the right advice to treat IBS. Secondly, this will help you rule out more serious or life-threatening conditions that mimic IBS symptoms.


Whether you have mild symptoms or debilitating ones, you don't need to learn to live with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Instead, you can improve your symptoms by adopting a complementary and integrative health approach to your IBS. Diet and lifestyle changes including reducing stress and regular exercise can do wonders for your gut health.

New and exciting ways to monitor the symptoms of IBS are also on the way. Enter the Çava Seat. Designed with high-quality biometric sensors, the seat tracks your gut health, heart health, fitness progress, and more, without changing your daily routine. Daily bathroom visits provide some of the best information needed to identify gut imbalances and food intolerances.

By tracking your vitals, body composition, and waste quality the Çava Seat is able to learn over time and make recommendations to help you live a healthier life.


What is the main cause of irritable bowel syndrome?

A combination of causes could be responsible for IBS. For example, stress, anxiety, depression, diet, or a difficult or traumatic early life could be the cause. Your gut health has a huge role to play in your overall health, and when there's an imbalance, your digestive health suffers causing IBS symptoms.

How do you feel when you have irritable bowel syndrome?

It's difficult to feel good when you have abdominal pain, gas, cramps, constipation, or diarrhea. These symptoms are not only painful or uncomfortable, but they can also make life challenging for many.

What foods trigger IBS Irritable bowel Syndrome?

In general, you should avoid FODMAP foods that can trigger or make your symptoms worse. Think fatty foods, artificial sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup, lactose, and junk food.  Foods that are high FODMAPs like apples, garlic, and honey should also be avoided.

Does irritable bowel syndrome go away?

As a complex and multi-causal condition, there's no straightforward answer. For many, their IBS symptoms disappear for long periods, while for others, it never returns. This all depends on whether the root causes have been identified and treated. The good news is that with the right diet and lifestyle changes, every IBS patient has the opportunity to improve their quality of life.

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Medically reviewed by
Giorgio Napoli, MD
February 15, 2022
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