If you have frequent abdominal pain, bloating, cramping diarrhea and/or constipation, you could worry that you have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease — or even cancer. However, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can cause these symptoms too.
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IBS usually strikes people under age 45 and affects twice as many women as men. Doctors diagnose IBS when three or more bouts of unexplained abdominal discomfort/pain occur for three months in a row.
If you’re diagnosed with IBS, there is an upside. IBS does cause a change in bowel habits, but it doesn’t damage the digestive tract as IBD does.
“While the symptoms can be significant, it’s reassuring to know that irritable bowel syndrome is not life-threatening,” says gastroenterologist Brian Kirsh, MD.
IBS is worsened by stress, anxiety and depression ― and by individual triggers. “It’s difficult to isolate triggers, particularly in your diet,” says Dr. Kirsh. “One day, you can eat a particular food, like salad, and feel fine. Yet on the next day, it seems to trigger an attack.”
While not always predictable, that’s not to say you can’t take steps to help minimize how much your IBS affects your day-to-day life. Here, Dr. Kirsh offers seven practical tips to offset common IBS triggers:
Make any diet and lifestyle changes gradually to give your body a chance to adapt, Dr. Kirsh says. Your primary care doctor can suggest changes in diet and lifestyle to help you manage mild IBS. A visit with a registered dietitian may also be worthwhile.
If your IBS symptoms persist, it’s best to see a gastroenterologist. These specialists can prescribe medications to normalize bowel function and rule out other conditions.
“There are many treatment strategies to make IBS manageable,” says Dr. Kirsh.
Be sure to consult a gastroenterologist if bleeding or weight loss occurs, or if you have a family history of digestive disorders.