Amidst IBS Awareness Month we want to bring your attention to some common misconceptions about IBS so as to set it apart from IBD (they’re not one and the same!) and do what April invites us to do – raise awareness about how serious and underresearched IBS is.

We take this opportunity to present some facts about IBS, as well as some of the most recent research on it because we at FindMeCure know how disheartening it can feel to be diagnosed with a condition that is sometimes underestimated even by medical professionals.

IBS is not a psychosomatic condition, even though no physical or biochemical changes can be observed in patients. So, let’s spread reliable information as it makes us more understanding when addressing the issue with people who are affected. Here are 6 facts about IBS that you need to know if you experience the symptoms but don’t have a diagnosis yet or if a loved one has recently been diagnosed.

Functional disorder, not an organic disease – what is the difference?

An organic disease is one in which there is evident, observable and measurable damage done to the body’s organs or tissues. Disease progression can be quantified, complications can be to a certain degree predicted, changes in structure can be measured and pointed out via biomarkers. Inorganic diseases, there is a physical or biochemical process that can be affected by medicine even if the cause of the disease is unknown and thus, it can’t be directly treated.

A functional disorder, on the other hand, can’t be effectively measured. There are no observable physical changes that symptoms can be attributed to. Nevertheless, symptoms are present and that’s how health care providers know there is a disease.

IBS is a functional disorder. While technically, symptoms such as constipation or diarrhea can be treated with medication, there is no observable reason as to why some people experience this particular set of symptoms. There are also no universal triggers that worsen symptoms in all patients and there are no at-home remedies that help all.   

IBS, not IBD, though symptoms are similar

IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, while IBD is short for Inflammatory Bowel Disease and it encompasses a spectrum of Crohn’s and colitis variations. Inflammation and the consequences that come with it are the big difference between the two.

IBS is not observable and it’s not associated with any structural damage of the digestive tract. Inflammation in IBD, however, leads to changes visible during a medical examination, including damage outside the digestive tract. Inflammation can affect the eyes, joints or the skin and can lead to symptoms outside the abdominal area such as fever and anemia.

The same is not true for IBS. Though only about 30% of people with IBS seek medical attention, IBS is in some ways harder to understand and treat because there is no visible cause of the pain and bowel movement issues patients report. IBS is only diagnosable by the symptoms reported and it’s frequently confused with other abdominal diseases and conditions even by experienced medical professionals.     

No food is off-limits but you need to know your triggers

Like we said earlier, there are no universal triggers. Not everyone who has IBS is lactose intolerant or also has gluten sensitivity. Likewise, though fiber can benefit a lot of IBS sufferers, some patients report no improvement no matter what changes they introduce in their diet. For about a quarter of people with IBS, medical care is necessary.

The good news is that no food or food group is strictly off-limits. If you know this one guy that parted ways with gluten and hasn’t experienced symptoms since it doesn’t mean that you have to give up pasta. However, an elimination diet might help you rule out some common triggers. You can start by cutting out gluten for two weeks and if you experience no improvement, try doing the same with dairy. Never experiment with your diet unsupervised, but be open to it with the help and insight of a nutritionist.

With IBS what will be most helpful is tracking your symptoms to identify your personal triggers and ‘danger’ foods.   

ABCD can be a BIG DEAL – it’s not always mild

ABCD stands for Abdominal pain, Bloating, Constipation and Diarrhea and it sums up the symptoms that come with IBS. Though we said earlier that IBS is not associated with any of the complications, risks or disease progression of IBD like surgery, ostomy and colon cancer, IBS is not a mild inconvenience. While yes, some people with IBS can ease their symptoms by introducing some lifestyle and dietary changes, others don’t benefit significantly from low FODMAP diet, probiotics, relaxation techniques and so on. They need medication to simply be able to get out of bed.

In some people abdominal pain can be so severe, they have to skip work or school, cancel dates and say no to all sorts of events. The same goes for diarrhea and constipation that can last so long and cause so much bloating, that doing any sort of physical activity is unthinkable.

Just because IBS symptoms have no observable cause doesn’t mean that they’re no big deal, mild or psychological. IBS requires the same amount of dedicated research because it can wreak havoc on the lives of those who experience it.

Low FODMAP diet might help some

Though research doesn’t support the low FODMAP diet as a treatment for IBS, some patients report improvement of symptoms as a result of it. Others, however, experience no benefit.

But what is a low FODMAP diet? Developed by nutritionist Sue Shepherd, the diet is supposed to reduce IBS symptoms by limiting FODMAP foods: Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides, and Polyols. The foods included under FODMAP for those of you who don’t have a background in nutrition or biology are wheat and rye, onions, garlic, artichokes, legumes, dairy, honey, apples, pears, watermelon, mango, mushrooms, cauliflower, sugar-free gums ar mints. But is the exclusion of so many foods supported by research?

Well, more research is surely needed. However, a study of 82 adult IBS patients comparing low FODMAP diet with standard UK dietary guidelines for IBS shows that those who adhered to the low FODMAP diet reported greater alleviation of symptoms than the group that followed the guidelines. So, maybe a low FODMAP is worth a shot under the supervision of a trained nutritionist with experience working with IBS patients.      

There are recent advancements

Though more clinical research is needed to develop a wider understanding of IBS, what causes it and how it can be treated, there are some recent developments that might shape further investigations.

Difference in gut microbiota (the organisms that live in the gut) might lead to earlier diagnosis when medical professionals are unsure whether the patient has IBS or IBD. Abnormal microbiota in patients with IBS might be the cause of the disorder, according to researchers, and studies have focused on it for the past decade.

This is good news because it means that IBS can be treated with FMT (fecal microbiota transplantation) in the future. Transferring healthy bacteria to recipients who suffer from IBS or IBD is still under investigation but it shows a lot of promise in clinical trials for Clostridium difficile. Such results have led some researchers to believe that transplantation can be beneficial in other cases when the gut microbiota shows signs of abnormality.

If you want to join ongoing research on IBS, you can enroll in one of the recruiting clinical trials and be among the first to access innovative treatments in development. By participating in clinical research studies you can help bring the newest advancements to the patients who need them sooner.  

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