IBS and IBD – Do You Really Have All The Facts?

“It’s probably the roadside kebab that I indulged in at 2 am on Friday”, you tell yourself. “Or maybe the curry that we had at Dad’s last week?” But, the bloating, stomach cramps and embarrassingly frequent trips to the bathroom seem to have settled into a rather nasty rhythm and don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. Friends point out that you may have IBS. Or IBD. Or both, considering this has been going on for some time now.

When it comes to gastrointestinal issues, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) very often go undetected or misdiagnosed.

What is the difference between IBS and IBD? What are the symptoms and the causes of these “mystery” conditions?

What Is IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is classified as a “functional disorder” as opposed to a disease as there has yet to be found an identifiable cause of the symptoms presented.  It is an increasingly common ailment affecting the large intestine, resulting in pain, irregular stools, gas, acute diarrhoea and general abdominal discomfort.

Doctors have been unable to pinpoint the exact causes of IBS, but there are a few theories:

  • An overly sensitive colon
  • An immune system response to stress
  • Hormonal or environmental factors
  • An increase or decrease of serotonin in the gut
  • A result of a severe infection

Other factors which have been proven to trigger or exacerbate IBS include foods such as wheat, dairy, citrus fruits or highly processed foods. There is, however, increasing evidence which points to stress as a trigger for IBS, and while it may not cause the disorder, it certainly aggravates it – which may be why so many IBS sufferers have been told that “it’s all in your head.”

The risk factors of IBS vary, too. You are more likely to experience the syndrome if you are a woman, under 50 years of age, there is any family history of IBS and notably – if you suffer from anxiety or depression.

Symptoms of IBS

Sufferers of IBS may show a combination of the following symptoms:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal cramps, discomfort or pain
  • Excess gas or bloating
  • Mucous in the stool

Those suffering from IBS may experience all or a few of these symptoms, which in turn, may improve or worsen – or even disappear completely at times.

Treatment of IBS

Because of the seemingly random presentation of symptoms, treatment of IBS can be tricky. What works for one person may have no effect on the next.

What has been noted by the medical community, however, is the strong link between lifestyle choices and IBS.  Appreciating the link between what we do, what we eat, how we think, and our overall health has helped many sufferers of IBS to prevent or manage their condition.

One of the key influences within our control is our mental health. Stress is a major contributing factor to the severity of IBS, therefore steps need to be taken to modify our thinking and manage our stress and anxiety levels.  Counselling, relaxation exercises, mindfulness and meditation all fall under this essential umbrella of self-healing.

As with anything affecting our physical bodies, choosing the right foods, getting sufficient exercise, and getting enough sleep are crucial, and all will have a positive impact on our gastrointestinal health.

What Is IBD

Inflammatory Bowel Disease is, as you can glean from the name, swelling or inflammation of the intestines and encapsulates conditions such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

IBD is another illness in which the cause remains something of a mystery. One theory is a malfunction in the immune system which causes an abnormal response results in immune cells attacking the digestive tract.

The seriousness of IBD is underscored by the complications that all too often go hand in hand with this condition. The Mayo Clinic has listed colon cancer, skin eye and joint inflammation and blood clots among others.

Doctors used to believe that stress and a poor diet caused IBD, but it’s become clear that – as with IBS – the condition may be worsened by these but necessarily not caused by them.

Symptoms Of IBD

IBD and IBS share many of the same symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea and abdominal pain. However, IBD will also show some of the following:

  • Weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Extreme fatigue and fever
  • Joint pain
  • Rectal bleeding

How do you know whether you are at risk of IBD? While these risk factors aren’t exhaustive, studies have shown that smoking, a family history of IBD, the use of certain medications (such as Ibuprofen, Voltaren and others), diet and ethnicity (particularly Ashkenazi Jews) are at greater risk of developing this disease.

Treatment Of IBD

There are a host of drugs available to IBD sufferers. However, it’s worth noting that these often include anti-inflammatory medication, immunosuppressants, antibiotics and antidiarrheals. While these go a long way towards relieving the discomfort experienced with IBD, they tend to work against the body’s natural healing process.

As with so many other modern-day illnesses, traditional medicine too often treats the symptoms, suppressing them for the moment – but not tackling the real issues. In the case of IBD, they could be related to mental health, diet, abnormal immune responses, allergies, toxins, or any number of preventable causes.

Dr. Steven Gunn
Author: Dr. Steven Gunn