IBS is a lifetime condition for many people. Learn how living with IBS includes finding ways to recognize triggers and control IBS symptoms over time.

IBS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome is not a condition you can grow out of, but one that requires finding ways to better live with it. It is a functional digestion disorder, so the symptoms occur when there’s a change in the way your digestive system functions. So, the condition has nothing to do with a disease of the digestive system. IBS doesn’t cause swelling, bleeding, or damage to the digestive system, unlike IBD or inflammatory bowel disease.

According to the chairman of the department of gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, New York, David Bernstein, MD:

 “IBS is extraordinarily common — in fact, it is one of the most common complaints seen by doctors. It includes a wide range of symptoms like bloating, pain, constipation, and diarrhea. People with IBS have different triggers and different symptoms. The good news is that lifestyle changes, diet modifications, and medications can usually control the symptoms, and IBS does not lead to serious problems.”

IBS Among Children and Adults

Dr. Bernstein explains that IBS usually affects young women, but it’s also common among children as well as seniors in their 70s or 80s. IBS symptoms can appear suddenly, and most people have the condition for a lifetime.

Around 20% of the population may have this condition which typically occurs before the age of 45, affecting twice as many women as men. Research published in the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility in 2013, discovered that around 23% of 345 children at the ages between 4 and 18 had IBS symptoms, like back pain, constipation, fatigue, and headache.

The condition is believed to decrease with aging, but experts say it affects about 10% of elderly people. In 2018, the journal Clinical Geriatrics published a review of IBS in older people, saying that the condition affects the elderly almost the same as it affects other age groups.

IBS Diagnosis and Management

Bernstein explains that IBS is diagnosed by reviewing the symptoms and ruling out the possibility of more serious diseases. Even though the exact cause of IBS is unknown, experts believe it’s associated with motility and digestion. It’s definitely not happening only in your head. When it comes to the treatment of IBS, Bernstein says it’s not one-size-fits-all, but more like a bit of trial and error.

The inner walls of the digestive systems of people with IBS are believed to have too sensitive nerves. So, when food moves along, they get symptoms of constipation, diarrhea, or cramps due to peristalsis (waves of muscular contractions that move food in the digestive tract.) The triggers may not be the same for every patient, but the most common include stress and specific foods.

If a patient has symptoms for 6 months or at least 3 days a month in the past 3 months, they will likely be diagnosed with IBS. However, if symptoms include anemia, bleeding, weight loss, or fever, they will be diagnosed with another condition.

Here are a few suggestions on how to manage IBS:

Dietary changes – certain foods can trigger symptoms of IBS like high-gas producing foods, high-fat foods, and milk products. You can find out your trigger foods by keeping a food diary. Generally, people with IBS are recommended to eat smaller, frequent meals. Bernstein suggests eating more fiber as well.

Medications – the type of medications your doctor would prescribe depends on your symptoms. Typical medications include fiber supplements, laxatives, medications to relieve cramps, or medications to relieve depression or reduce anxiety.

Probiotics – these dietary supplements increase the number of healthy gut bacteria. According to 16 studies on IBS reviewed in 2012 and published in the journal PLoS ONE, probiotics improved symptoms in people of all ages.

Stress Management – one of the most common IBS triggers is stress. Therefore, Bernstein believes that reducing stress can be helpful for children and adults with this condition. Stress-reducing techniques like yoga, meditation, talk therapy, and counseling have all proven to be helpful in the management of IBS.

IBS is a common condition, no matter the age. Even though you cannot predict the course of IBS, a lot of people find ways to live well with this condition over a lifetime. As Bernstein says, IBS is not a catastrophic problem, but a common one. Many people are able to recognize their triggers and make certain adjustments to control their IBS symptoms.