What People With IBS Want You to Know

You probably know several people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but you may not know they have it. That’s because IBS is a condition that most people are unfortunately too embarrassed to talk about.

IBS is a very real issue. It’s likely due to hyperactive receptors in the gut, but the real cause is unknown. And there’s no test for IBS—it’s a diagnosis of exclusion.

People with IBS experience symptoms such as excessive flatulence, nausea, constipation, abdominal cramps, pain, and diarrhea. These symptoms temporarily disappear after emptying the bowels. As a consequence, those with IBS learn the location of public restrooms wherever they go and may have to excuse themselves repeatedly. Otherwise, the alternative is to just stay home.

But to help break down the stigma often associated with IBS, here is a list of what people with the condition want you to know. Hopefully, one day IBS-related embarrassment will be but a distant memory. In the meantime, remember that conversation is power.

We May Not Have a Disease, but Our Symptoms Can Be Debilitating

Consoling a friend

After multiple tests failed to reveal a cause, such as cancer, inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn’s disease, we were diagnosed with IBS. That doesn’t make our symptoms any less serious or life-altering.

We Can’t Always Eat What You Eat

Certain foods can trigger a reaction in our gut. If we appear to be a picky eater, please don’t try to force a particular food on us!  We know what we need to avoid.

We Can’t Always Participate in the Same Events You Do

Many holidays and special events revolve around food. If we turn down an invitation, it may be because we can’t eat what is being served or we can’t be sure there will be a bathroom nearby. But if our symptoms can be accommodated, please be supportive and understanding.

We May React Adversely to Events You Find Exhilarating

That big meeting with an important client is going to cause us to experience symptoms. Stresses of all kinds—even good ones—are likely to trigger a reaction in our sympathetic nervous system. Anxiety and depression are the surest triggers, but any form of stress can affect us. Many people with IBS are perfectionists or highly disciplined. The stress associated with this personality type can make our symptoms worse.

We Are Trying to Control Our IBS Through Many Avenues

There are three avenues to bringing IBS under control: medications, trigger food avoidance, and therapy or counseling. Which of these we are using depends on the symptoms we experience. Medications can help improve how well foods pass through our colon and may alleviate stomach pain or diarrhea. Identifying trigger foods by using the FODMAP diet can also help us know what foods to avoid. We may add probiotics and fiber to our diet too to improve the health of our gut. Therapy or counseling helps some of us reduce stress and the symptoms it triggers. 

We May Have Had IBS for Years

IBS is seen in young children and often begins in young women during adolescence. However, men can be affected as well. 

We May Have IBS for the Rest of Our Lives

Everyone is different. Over time, many of us can gain control of our symptoms through dietary modifications and medical therapy. There’s no reason we can’t live life to the fullest!

We Want to Be Open and Discuss Our IBS

If you don’t know how to share your IBS diagnosis with your friends and family, we advise you to be honest. That doesn’t always mean you need to provide details. If you are in school, tell your teachers or administrators about your symptoms. That will be easier than making excuses. You will find a supportive environment to be more relaxing and less likely to trigger symptoms.

When friends, acquaintances, or coworkers question why you visit the bathroom so often, or ask why you don’t eat certain foods or attend certain events, just say, “I have GI issues.” Sometimes being honest without giving specific details will stop the inquiries.

Dr. Patel is a pediatric gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic's Richard E. Jacobs Health Center.

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