Irritable bowel syndrome affects nearly 35 million Americans. To put that in perspective, this chronic condition impacts more people than the entire population of Texas. Many people miss school, work and social commitments because of its debilitating effects.
Symptoms differ, but most people with IBS experience a variety of discomforts, such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, cramping, constipation and abdominal pain—all on a regular basis. Women are almost twice as likely as men to have IBS, and most diagnoses occur in people younger than 45.
Jeffrey Aron, M.D., medical director for Sutter’s Center for Inflammatory Bowel Disorders in San Francisco, describes the gastrointestinal tract as a gigantic and powerfully receptive system.
“The gut is the main sensing organ of the external environment in all living things,” Dr. Aron says. “Its total surface area in humans is more than a quarter mile. There are more immune, nerve and hormonal cells in the gastrointestinal tract than anywhere else in the body.”
Changes to the gut’s anatomy, physiology or surrounding environment causes IBS’s inflammatory response in sensitive people.
There’s no cure for IBS, but dietary and lifestyle changes can ease symptoms. Food is a huge trigger for most IBS sufferers; emotional stress, as well as fluctuating hormones and menstruation in women, also exacerbate symptoms, Dr. Aron says. “In the short-term of the menstrual cycle, female hormones can produce immediate changes in digestive tract muscle function, so symptoms are often worse near menstruation,” he says. (Interestingly, pregnancy appears to temporarily improve IBS symptoms.)